Twenty-three years ago today, I got married for the first time. And it was under conditional terms.
There has been so much in the news now about women’s agency and why we don’t just leave when things go bad. But it’s not that simple, especially when we’re not talking about assault or rape culture (and even in those cases, it’s still not simple).
When my former husband asked me to marry him, his proposal came with conditions. We were seated at my desk in our Hong Kong dormitory, not far from the border of his motherland, mainland China. He didn’t want to move to the US, he told me. We couldn’t get married unless I agreed to go back to China with him. Even Hong Kong was out of the question (that had more to do with the immigration laws at the time, but he didn’t see Hong Kong as a long term plan in any case).
So what did I do?
Agree with him, of course.
Why didn’t I just walk away, as so many women (and men) would ask? Where was my agency? He wasn’t a bad person for giving me this condition. He may not have been thinking of me, but that didn’t make him a predator. This deal worked for him because 1) he was conditioned to do what he wanted and 2) I was conditioned to put myself last.
It was what I’d been hearing my whole life up to that point. My grandmother left her comfortable Connecticut upbringing to move to Elgin, Illinois to marry my grandfather. There was no discussion of him looking for a job in CT.
My dad and his first wife moved to Chicago from Pittsburgh, her birthplace and the only home she’d known. It was just expected she would follow him, despite her severe agoraphobia.
And even my independent mother, who had moved to Japan in the mid-60s and traveled around the world on her own, left her home in Seattle after my dad wrote her letters everyday for 9 months until she moved back to Chicago to marry him. Yes, she didn’t like her job in Seattle, but would she have left if she hadn’t had this marriage proposal?
So how could I at 24 put a place before a person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with? It wasn’t how I was conditioned. And adding the cross-cultural elements to this mix, I had the added pressures to show I could handle an international marriage and would be understanding of his culture.
When things hit rock bottom in my first marriage, I was finally able to put place first. The safety of my parents’ home, a support system of relatives, and a calm environment for my toddler son, Chicago called.
Place finally won out.