Trust Mad Men’s pneumatic, aging bombshell Joan Holloway to nail seven seasons worth of subtext in one sentence. In Sunday’s episode, which is rightly being lauded as the most emotional of the season, closeted Bob Benson, now fearing for his future as a senior executive in the hyper-masculine auto industry, desperately proposes to Joan, his fag hag. He believes this will be a mutually beneficial arrangement: her child will have a father, a male role model who literally looks and behaves like a model;she will have the security of socially acceptable marital status; she can be free of her shackles to the perpetually dysfunctional Sterling Cooper agency. And he will have the beard that he needs to network the locker room at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club in the affluent suburbs of Detroit without guys assuming he’s making the moves on them.
Joan turns him down. “I want love,” she proclaims with muted hysteria. “And I would rather die hoping that happens than make some arrangement.”
That sentence zinged right through my mind and into the core of my being. Whether consciously or not, with this lead-in to the series finale in a few weeks the show’s creators have concluded a crucial thread that has motivated every main character: the ongoing negotiations and contracts that individuals make between each other for survival in a rapidly evolving society. Mad Men could just as easily be called Game of Arrangements.
This resonated with me because I have, on a few occasions in my life, entered into an arrangement that ignored or willfully forsook the ideal of romantic relationships. I did this because I dismissed that ideal as being impractical. But Joan summed up a simple truth: a real romance is an ideal because it is ideal. Either live for it, or die without it.
Any relationship is bound to have maintenance issues, some negotiation and compromise, but for it to work it must have that element of romantic ideal as its basis; otherwise, it simply isn’t worth pursuing.
Much of my belief that practical arrangements are better than idyllic romantic partnerships has to do with the amount of time I spent in India; like many Westerners before me, I mistook Indian ‘wisdom’ for being something greater than my own culture’s shallow, egocentric philosophies, when that perceived superiority couldn’t be further from reality.
Despite the fact all Bollywood movies have a schmaltzy romantic subplot laden with clichés running through them as an integral part of their particular cinematic formula, in real life arranged marriages are still the norm there, for good reason, although that practice is starting to erode within the middle class.
For several generations, Westerners have had the technological wherewithal to allow the individual to exist in relative safety without depending on the family. For the great majority of people in India — i.e., the poor, both rural and urban — the nuclear-family structure is still the only way to survive a life so harsh that we in the West would not conceive of living it. And ideals like romantic love have no place in life-or-death situations.
Without ever giving much thought to the practical reasons as to why India needs arranged marriages — and by extension the tribalism of castes, which are basically groups of families with similar mercantile and pragmatic interests, wherein children are the primary commodity of exchange — I bought into their stale, specious “truism” that arranged marriages work better than love marriages. “Look at the divorce rate in the West!” an Indian parent will say. “Your mother and I didn’t know each other when we married, but we grew to love each other over time. So will you. Chalo, around the sacred flame with a perfect stranger you go! We know best.”
This is nonsense, a lie. But, like the millions of nonexistent gods in India, it is nonsense so venerated and worshipped that it becomes real. Never having experienced true love in their lives — just as so many Indian women never experience an orgasm — people in arranged marriages settle into a complacency they call love, but is really just the addictive comfort born of familiarity and of a secure social network with standardized behaviors. Never having had the experience of true romantic love, for many Indians it becomes a myth, something only misguided, unhappy firangs like us pursue, or prancing Bollywood heroes and jiggling heroines, who had might as well be firangs.
In fact, the myth of the benefits of arranged marriages is the same as Soviet propaganda about the evils of capitalism. It maintains the status quo for the masses. Modern members of India’s elite and middle class don’t need that security any more; the technological infrastructure that only they can afford allows them to pursue the ideal of love as individuals without forsaking it by having to rely on traditional family structures.
As an embattled veteran of the romance wars, I’ve entered into a few arrangements that weren’t ideal, but that doesn’t mean I’m not glad I went through those experiences. The beauty of having the luxury to be free of suffocating societal constraints is our ability to experiment and discover for ourselves those truths that matter. I’ve even made arrangements within a romantic relationship, which turned out not to be as ideal as I first thought, just to keep it going, to try to reboot the idealism that led me to start the relationship in the first instance.
Most notably, and most germane to this piece, is when I married an Indian woman while I was in already in a relationship with a man I loved so passionately it took me a good five years to get over him, once I’d thoroughly crashed and burned our relationship by marrying the woman in India and then regretted that five months later. The situation sounds crazy, I know, because it was, and I admit to temporary loss of plot. But my relationship with this guy was too fraught with difficulty, and the arrangements I kept making to sustain it simply weren’t strong enough to carry it forward.
There were also a few extenuating circumstances that justified my actions, amongst which is the fact same-sex marriages weren’t even on the horizon at the time, and my wife was a dear friend who desperately needed my help. Still, my marriage to her was convenient: it got me out of another relationship that I was unable to sustain. (He was grappling with real insanity — delusions, paranoia, hallucinations, rage — and I wasn’t mentally stable enough myself to keep walking on eggshells around him.)
My current romance, with the man I called the Primary, can also be seen as an arrangement. To that end, I am extremely ambivalent about it, and Joan’s declaration on Sunday night has deepened that ambivalence. On the one hand, I want out of it; on the other, he is that cliché of romantic fiction: The love of my life. The core issue is his schizoid/avoidant personality; he reciprocates my love, but he wants me at a safe distance, the boyfriend in his phone, not in his home. It’s just as well we live a continent apart and only see each other occasionally.
“I don’t want to be with anyone,” he said to me about six months ago, when I allowed him back into my life after booting him out for the better part of a year. “I’m polyamorous.” I didn’t take him seriously, nor did his statement upset me in the least. After four and a half years of this oddest of deeply romantic relationships, this real-life Brokeback Mountain, having researched schizoid/avoidants down to the very last footnote in psychology papers, I know what makes him tick. The truth is that, by any standard of romantic relationships, he isn’t even mono-amorous, much less poly; he can’t sustain his relationship with me in an acceptable conventional sense, much less several relationships at once. His inability to sustain an ideal relationship doesn’t mean he doesn’t yearn for it; in fact, the general thinking about schizoid/avoidants is he yearns for it more than ‘normal’ people, who don’t panic and throw themselves into exile when anyone comes too close.
The upshot of all of my research with schizoid/avoidants is that you will never be loved as intensely as you are by someone with that personality trait — I can bear witness to that. Either you accept being loved at a distance or you should get out of it. That’s not an option for me: the only way out would be if I were heartless and only interested in self-preservation, and I am neither that evil nor that weak.
So I’ve learned to accept him. The Primary’s actions (or often lack thereof) don’t bother me any more. As I have written a few times, I have reached something approaching true unconditional love for him, which is ideal. But this doesn’t excuse what my acceptance really is: an arrangement.
Joan Holloway uses an important word: Hope. In Greek mythology, when Pandora opens the forbidden box and unleashes all of the evils onto the world, the Spirit of Hope is the last thing that remains. The presence of hope is usually seen as a hope-filled conclusion to a myth that leaves us filled with despair; evil will never be conquered, will always be present. The irony is most people choose to ignore the fact that hope is one of the evils in the box.
Deep down we know that, like prayer, hope is futile. At best, hope is a crap shoot, at worst, a delusion that keeps us sane until the inevitability of what we hoped wouldn’t happen happens.
As the proverbial hopeless romantic that I am, I do live with the conviction that one day I will be able to live a somewhat normalized relationship with the Primary, even if I know we are both eccentric creatives who aren’t suited to normative situations and relationships. The basis for my hope isn’t that love conquers all, but that both the Primary himself and our relationship evolves little by little. If there weren’t progress, I would probably have been out of this arrangement a long time ago.
So thank you, Joan, for that Battle Cry of the Hopeful Romantics. You make it seem sanely virtuous, heroic, even if it might be seen as a quixotic heroism from a purely practical, rational standpoint.
How many couples have I seen who are bound together by fear of being alone? Millions; again, almost the entire subcontinent of India. That is where the real heroism lies, in not being afraid of the all-too-real prospect of being alone. But Joan is right: it is preferable to be alone than to live with a daily compromise, with a lie, with an arrangement that is seen as mutually beneficial but is actually soul draining.
Eventually, if true love doesn’t come our way, we will give up hope well before we die of old age. But by then it shouldn’t matter; final, healthy acceptance of what life has dealt us will mop up any residual emotional incontinence. But if we compromise along the way, we risk something far sadder than being alone. We risk that our true love will pass us by because we are with someone who allays our fears rather than someone who should fuel our happiness.