This article was first published on Mind Body Green.
As a dating coach, I am often approached by men and women who ache with deep loneliness. They want love desperately, but have strong prerequisites.
“I only date black men.”
“I must marry Jewish.”
“She must be blonde.”
It is not my place to judge anyone else’s preferences. However, real Love (the kind with a capital L) recognizes that we are souls, yearning to love, laugh, grow and connect. If we’re lucky enough to find someone who makes us feel safe, accepted, cherished and valued (and who encourages us to be our best), we must keep an open heart and mind. We are called to reject arbitrary labels and pre-conceived notions that keep Love at bay.
I have witnessed first-hand what happens when consciousness is expanded in the name of Love. The daughter of immigrants, my father is Indian (and Hindu) and my mother is Spanish (and Catholic). Married in 1968, their unorthodox union came during a time when people rarely crossed the lines of race, nationality and religion.
Their differences made our family life richer and more interesting. At home, we listened to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, rooted for “Gandhi” to win the Best Picture Oscar, and ate my Grandmother’s homemade chorizo. Underlying any superficial differences were my parents shared values—the importance of family, a commitment towards helping others, and an imperative to be global citizens.
A few weeks ago, I was on the train headed towards Washington. I began conversation with Nadia Iftekhar-- the beautiful young woman sitting next to me. She told me of her year working in Saudi Arabia, her decision to wear a hijab (a veil often worn by Muslim women that covers their head and chest), and her upcoming graduation from Columbia University. When I shared that I am a writer and dating coach, she responded that she soon would be getting married.
Her fiancé shared her faith, but not her race. She is Pakistani; he is Sudanese. I asked if things were easier now, nearly 50 years after my parents dared to challenge convention?
Unfortunately, many of the same hurdles still exist. Nadia feared her family and friends would not accept her marriage to an African-American man. Her husband worried that his parents could not accept a woman who did not speak Arabic. While they successfully navigated these challenges, the unspoken (and often unacknowledged) divisions of “us” versus “them” remain.
I asked Nadia to write this piece with me, as we both have borne witness to Love that bridges differences. Together, we discuss the five roadblocks that keep people from achieving their greatest Love:
1. They are worried about pleasing family, friends & society.
From an early age, we are conditioned by family, friends and society about the “correct” way to love. Even in the most liberal families, there may be an unspoken understanding that while all people are created equal, certain types of people are not “acceptable” as a partner or spouse.
Love is not formulaic. Many seemingly “right” people are actually “wrong” for us.
Adulthood is when we individuate from our families, so that we may live our own truth. Further, to live authentically and in line with our own values—both hallmarks of emotional health—we must disregard society’s opinion in preference of our own.
2. They confuse the superficial and the fundamental.
People with happy relationships share common values—an imperative to be honest; a willingness to serve; a desire to raise emotionally intelligent children; and an interest in learning about other cultures, nationalities and religions. With this mindset firmly in place, hair color, skin color and other superficial labels are trivial.
“We are so much more than the skin that contains us. Although society kept reminding me that it is taboo for an African-American man and South Asian-American woman to fall in love, my husband and I were awed by our shared interests, values and opinions. Once we shed the expectations of the outside world, we were able to see that we are just two souls with a deep understanding of one another,” said Nadia.
3. They are stuck to a “checklist.”
Relationship books often advise to make checklists of “must have” qualities when searching for a mate. Yet, if you talk to happy couples, they often concede that their “perfect” partner is rarely what they imagined (and often exceeds expectation). The Universe, after all, has a way of laughing at our best-laid plans.
Before Nadia met her husband, she too had a short-list of “must-haves.” While some qualities rang true—including the importance of family—she expanded from thinking that her soul mate needed to be Pakistani-American. “I am so grateful that I opened my mind, as it allowed me to find someone I love so much and learn from every day,” she said.
4. They believe familiarity is the basis for strong attachment.
It is human to stick with what is comfortable, but familiarity oftentimes becomes mundane. Conversely, differences keep partners intrigued and stimulate continued learning and growth.
When you choose a partner who is different, you get an insider's perspective into how your partner views the world and the way the world views him or her. Because of her husband’s influence, Nadia has a newfound interest in traveling to Africa. She, like many interracial couples, has an even greater empathy and tolerance for other cultures, religions and people.
5. They believe differences cause too much strife and unnecessary divide.
One of the best ways to confront biases or stereotypes is to get to know individuals from different groups on a human level. It's hard to be hateful when you sit down, share a meal and discuss your everyday life. Soon, you appreciate the similarities. (We cry over the same hurt and rejoice over the same joy.)
“The biggest realization my husband and I had was that, at the end of the day, we're just human beings,” said Nadia. “Sometimes we get so caught up in differences, we forget that the human experience is universal regardless of where you come from, what languages you speak and how you look on the outside.”
Nadia Iftekhar lives in Chicago with her husband. She teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing students.