On July 7, 2021, my husband and I celebrated 20 years of marriage. Every year when that date rolls around, I always wake up thinking, How did we ever make it? How did we ever survive?

The thought never lasts more than a few seconds. That’s because, over the past 20 years, we’ve spent most of our anniversaries surrounded by family members. So even if I had wanted to marinate on that thought, celebrating with others has always been the primary focus.

In the past two years, however, thanks to the global pandemic, I’ve had a little more time to reflect on how our marriage managed to survive.

At the ages of 27 and 23, my husband and I were brought together by mutual friends and family into a traditional Indian arranged marriage. Arranged marriages were all we had ever known. Generations of people before us had made it look successful and even easy. And since this existing formula had worked for centuries, I didn’t think it would be difficult for us.

But it was. The culture and community that had formed him and me—and the script that went with it—did not seem to work for us. Or to be more precise, it did not work for me.

Throughout our early years of marriage especially, I struggled, floundered, and wondered if it would be easier to just walk away. It was hard and painful, and there seemed to be no reward in sight.

Our romantic relationship did not look like it did in Indian movies—where boy meets girl, and they fall in love and run around trees together. And neither did it look like our married peers, who seemed to be getting along so much better than us.

In our Indian Christian community, our social caste, and our generation, parents arrange the marriage—preferably between an engineer boy and engineer girl or doctor boy and engineer girl.

After the couple gets married, both partners continue to work. Then, after a year or so, God willing, they have a child. Then they buy a home, or their parents gift them one. And then they have their grandparents or nanny care for the child. With each step in the formula, life is meant to move on seamlessly.

Our lives could have looked remarkably similar, but we decided to complicate things by packing our bags and moving to the United States. It was here that the real work of our marriage began. With no maid to care for the home and no nanny or granny to care for our children, we had to learn to navigate our relationship and family independently.

We did not have the natural guardrails of our family surrounding us, nor did our extended Indian community help us balance the arguments, disagreements, and spats that consumed our relationship.

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We were in our late 20s with two children, navigating life in a country that was so different from the one we were familiar with. It looked like we had a perfect life on the outside, but it was another story on the inside.

I had been questioning everything that was expected of me since I was 22. The formula had not worked, so why was I still invested in this relationship? Yet even in my fledgling faith, I knew this thinking pattern was wrong. I knew I had tried to navigate this marriage through my own strength for years, and the time had come for me to surrender.

Twenty years later, I know now that God works in mysterious ways, and he has taught me some life-altering lessons that have changed my perspective on arranged marriage and marriage more generally.

1. The purpose of marriage is to make us holy.

In his book Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas asks, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”

This challenged everything I knew about marriage. It was a profound foundational shift in my thinking pattern that forced me to contend with a lot of my early formation.

I may not have been taught that marriage was intended to make us happy, but it was displayed in the culture and community that formed me. And no one ever told me that holiness was integral to marriage.

As far as I was concerned, God owed me. If I did everything right and was the perfect, dutiful wife, then it was my right to be happy. Moreover, my husband owed it to me to keep me happy no matter what.

In many aspects, my marriage was charmed. But we were two flawed, broken people who did not understand what it meant to live under the rule of a God who calls us to be holy because he is holy (1 Pet. 1:15–16).

When I started looking at my marriage as a way for God to refine me from my selfishness and immaturity, I learned the deeper truths and mysteries he had for us as a couple.

Worth noting: I am not advocating for staying in an abusive situation. Any who find themselves trapped in domestic violence should seek help. God’s heart is never for his people to suffer any kind of abuse.

But for the rest of us, holiness is still the mandate.

2. Our culture shapes our expectations of marriage.

Our upbringing, community, and culture shaped what my husband and I came to expect of marriage.

Although we belonged to the same caste and had similar backgrounds, we were raised very differently and brought different expectations to the table. I felt uncomfortable because I did not fit into the expected mold—and I was not entirely sure of what I brought to the relationship.

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“Our culture says that feelings of love are the basis for actions of love,” writes Tim Keller in The Meaning of Marriage. “And of course that can be true. But it is truer to say that actions of love can lead consistently to feelings of love.” Keller likens marriage to a kind of spiritual friendship that “is eagerly helping one another know, serve, love, and resemble God in deeper and deeper ways.”

I did not start out with feelings of romantic love, but I grew familiar with the discipline of love. I began reminding myself that regular actions of love would eventually lead to feelings of love.

Through this process, I learned how to surrender and trust God. I needed to lean into my discomfort, let go of my control, and allow him to guide me. I learned to recognize my cultural expectations. And once I was able to let go of them, I found the freedom to discover what God was trying to teach me through my marriage.

Laying down what my culture expected of me and turning toward what God expected of me began to radically alter my expectations of marriage.

3. The Holy Spirit works in ways we cannot by our own strength.

There was a point in my marriage when I felt I could not move forward anymore, nor did I want to. It was too hard. I tried to quit and walk away.

I remember sitting and crying on the floor one morning, asking God for strength. Instead, I chose to surrender my will and my pride, to allow him to work his plan for us.

We both needed patience, gentleness, kindness, and self-control. But for that, we needed the Spirit of God to move in our marriage.

Love, in general, is at the bottom of the list in an arranged marriage. Honor and duty toward your spouse and your spouse’s family usually dictate the beginning of an arranged marriage. It did for me. But did love grow? Yes, the Spirit of God fostered in me a passion for the Lord and a love for my husband, which can only be called supernatural—the kind of love that grows out of embers and becomes a mighty flame.

John Piper’s definition of love from his book Desiring God is “the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others.” God chose us before creation and loved us. His love changes us and gives us the ability to love others around us.

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Agape love results from the covenant we make to God to love each other well. I needed him to search my heart and try me, refine me by fire, and keep removing the dross (1 Pet. 1:6–7). And in the process, God used my marriage to draw me closer to him.

My husband and I often talk about how our marriage has evolved over the years. To be fair, he had more faith that it would survive than I did. I did not think we would make it. There were many times I had lost hope. But God always met me during those times of despair, giving me faith and the spiritual sustenance needed to persevere.

A few years ago, when my husband and I visited India, one of our family members looked at us and said, “You both have changed since the early years of marriage. Something is different.” While she never expounded on the difference, I knew what it was. This comment was a meaningful gift I will never forget—and one that points to God’s enduring faithfulness.

Sherene Joseph Rajadurai is a third culture Indian American Christian and graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary.