Why I’m Choosing to Be 31 and Single


Bollywood Ruined My Love Life

As a kid, Bollywood strongly influenced my interpretation of what a relationship should be and what romance looks like. I always thought when I got older, a young handsome man would see me in a crowded bus and fall head over heels in love with me, do everything in his power to pursue me, and convince me that he was worthy of my love and affection. Of course once we were in love, we’d sing love ballads and dance around trees, just like so many of the films that came out of Bollywood in the ’90s.

Not Love Ballads, But Creeps

As a teenager, my parents didn’t allow me to date. In fact my dad was mortified when one of my guy friends came over to pick me up for river kayaking. When I left home for college, I pursued some of my crushes, but none led to real relationships.

Then I moved abroad to finish up my final quarter of college and then to Bombay to discover my roots. In all my adventures around the world, I kept thinking I’d bump into my perfect Prince Charming just walking down the street, at the airport, or on the train. Thanks to Bollywood, I romanticized everything.

Instead I was forced to navigate the world of creeps. A few men, who were old enough to be my dad, would invite me to their homes for an afternoon delight. One actually followed me home because I (accidentally) gave him a friendly smile as I was leaving the train station.

A Relationship = A Perfect Life

When I finally came back to the U.S., I promised myself I wouldn’t Bollywoodize my life. Easier said than done. One fine day at a party, I met someone new. He was single. My heart raced. My mind kept telling me “Yay! Yay! Yay! If he likes you back, your life is set.” He was Indian. He was older. He was smart and funny. I ignored my gut.

Our relationship went from the honeymoon period to making life decisions pretty quickly. Because he was five years older, his parents were putting pressure on both of us to get married. We’d only been dating for a month.

Even though I liked 60 percent of him, I started the relationship thinking I could change him. If I could change his thinking on how he objectified women and his dismissive treatment of me, his stats would move up to 90 percent. When I finally I rose from the fog of naïve “love,” I couldn’t believe who I’d become. In the process of me trying to change him, I had changed. I was cooking and cleaning for him. I was driving to his house three to four times a week in Bay Area traffic. I was constantly being demeaned by him. I was always going out of my way to please him.

When I asked him to slow down and re-evaluate where we wanted to go in our relationship, his response was, “This isn’t coming from you, because you’re incapable of forming an opinion.” I found myself navigating a highway of emotions — if I broke up with him, no other man was ever going to love me. If I stayed with him, could I give up my identity and be unhappy for the sake of society?

We broke up. I realized that I deserved better, and if I wanted to be in a healthy relationship, my identity mattered just as much as his.

I cried the first night, but then the next day, I felt like a weight had been lifted. That I was free. That I could breathe again. I had saved myself from a lifetime of unhappiness.

I spent the next year angry at myself. The shock that I could compromise my identity for someone else had mentally paralyzed me. I started over-analyzing every decision I could possibly make about my life — am I doing this because I want to or am I doing it because it’s expected of me?

An Old Maid At Twenty-six

Then, at the age of twenty-six, the subtle and not-so-subtle nudges started. Why don’t you join a group that focuses on social justice — it’s a great place to meet men because of the shared values? Why don’t you join a social meet up club — you’ll meet someone who shares similar hobbies? Why don’t you try a few online dating apps — so many people have met their partners there? Why don’t you volunteer at the local temple? Can you organize a religious ritual to appease the Gods that are preventing you from getting married?

Along with these suggestions came the stigmas attached with being confident, financially secure, and independent. If you don’t get married, who will take care of you in your old age? How will you have financial security? Why are you being so picky? Just marry anyone before you’re set in your ways. You’re already so old, the longer you wait, the fewer men will want you.

As infuriating as each of these interactions were, I had to put a smile on my face and say, “Yes, I’m trying and I’m looking.” Or, “If you rush me to get married, then I might end up marrying someone who’s abusive and not supportive, then what am I supposed to do?” (Divorce is still a taboo in many South Asian cultures.)

Then I’d go home and cry for days. Why couldn’t these same people see me for who I am? Why couldn’t they see my accomplishments? Why was I being treated as a social outcast for not having that wedding ring on my finger?

I have built a successful career. I’m surrounded by people who love me to the core of my existence. I volunteer with two refugee families. I am financially secure. I own a car. I have traveled to eleven different countries, some all by myself. I am beautiful. I am a half-decent photographer. I constantly laugh at myself. I am independent. I am confident, capable, and smart.

Sometimes the pressure was so much that I obliged and met prospective partners. I wanted to show these same people who were passing judgments that I was trying to put my best foot forward by being proactive. I wanted to prove them wrong.

Somehow all of the prospects ended up being South Asian men (though I don’t have a preference). Almost all of these dates were awful and most never went past the first “date.”

What Happened When I Stopped Dating

It’s been about seven months since my last date. I’m not going to lie — it feels GREAT. In all this time to myself, I’ve:

  • Taken a solo trip to the Middle East;
  • Enforced treat yo’self days with mandatory monthly mental health days;
  • Spent time with the people I love most;
  • Volunteered;
  • Attempted to be a photographer;
  • Started blogging (which has taken a lot of courage);
  • Made my profile on Instagram public (which was really uncomfortable).

I’ve adopted a policy: If marriage happens, great. If marriage doesn’t happen, then I’m not a failure in life.

(But as I write this post, I have received a phone call and email from a family member saying I need to try online dating again because the fact that I’m not married is causing a lot of concern within the family.)

Anjali Mehta

Anjali is a wannabe cultural anthropologist who loves reading a great story, urban and rural adventures, and appreciates unedited photography. In her spare time, she’s a nonprofit professional working to make her community more just. You can follow her on Instagram at @alakshya or read more of her stories online.

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  • penguin

    OK I just have to comment on the author of the book in the first photo – “Gaston Nightingale”?? That’s the absolute best pen name (or name) I’ve ever heard of. Off to actually read the piece now.

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  • Angela’s Back

    I love Bollywood movies but it never occurred to me how much they could mess up your romantic expectations if that’s the vision of love you’re raised on… good for you for doing your own thing, Anjali :D

  • Mrrpaderp

    Love everything about this article. Hope to hear more from Anjali! I clicked the link under Anjali’s name to read about her trip to the Middle East – amazing, inspiring, and insightful. Jordan might have to be my next solo trip.

    • Her Lindsayship

      Highly recommend Jordan!! I can’t speak to the solo-travel-ability because we just did our honeymoon there but it rocked, amazing trip.

  • Oy Vey

    “I cried the first night, but then the next day, I felt like a weight had been lifted. That I was free. That I could breathe again. I had saved myself from a lifetime of unhappiness.”

    I relate so hard to this sentiment (it’s what happened to me after breaking up with my toxic ex). You are incredibly brave to have gotten out and decided that seeking out happiness alone was better than being with someone and hoping for that fulfillment to come.

    Lots of love to you and kudos on all your adventures!

    • E.

      Same!

  • PW

    A dear friend of mine got into the same place from watching too many romantic comedies! She used to watch them constantly and I honestly believe that it indoctrinated her with the idea that love would fall into her lap one day and hot guys would see her across a crowd and fight for her love and she just had to sit and wait.

    It took her until she was 30 to realise that in order to meet a cool, different, exciting person, you kind of have to BE a cool, different, exciting person (in your own way), and then she went ahead and built a fantastic life for herself full of adventures, travel, and a career she loves.

    She is dating someone now and he makes her 10x happier than any of her exes. But even if she wasn’t dating, she’d still be happier than she was back in her RomCom Syndrome days.

    • mjh

      Yup. My [desi] friend had the romantic comedy syndrome, too. She was expecting the story to be that she was the cynical, brilliant, hard driving career woman who had no interest in or time for love, but would be coaxed into a passionate and deeply fulfilling relationship by a sexy, witty man of any ethnic background other than hers who fell in love with her from afar and vehemently pursued her after she rejected his advances time and time again until eventually, after much kicking and screaming, she fell for him too.

      That didn’t happen.

      She is indeed brilliant, and she kicks all kinds of career ass. But she eventually had to realize that the romantic comedy storyline she had imagined for herself didn’t make any sense. Why would any guy do that? And even if he did, how could a healthy partnership possibly come out of it, considering it’s pretty much built on the idea that she can’t know her own feelings? And isn’t waiting for a fairy tale whirlwind romance to sweep you off your feet kind of the opposite of having no interest in love?

      Once she started to pull out of that line of thinking, she started thinking through what she actually wanted and found that what she actually wanted was pretty much the opposite of what she always thought. She had always thought that people who grew up in her community and went on to marry other South Asians were people who didn’t use or have minds of their own and were just uninteresting people following a cookie cutter path laid out for them by societal expectation. Until around 30, she completely rejected the idea of dating any desi guy. When she dumped the romcom thinking and started figuring out what she actually wanted, she was horrified to find that not only was it really important to her to be with someone from the same cultural background, but that she isn’t comfortable with western dating norms. She spent her teen years onward thinking that Shaadi was for the loseriest of losers, and even though her sisters and cousins never shared the ideas she had about intracultural dating, they did (and most still do) find dating on Shaadi to be mockable while having no problem with Match and Tinder. My girl tried her hardest with Match and okaycupid, but she found that she’s just much more comfortable being herself with guys she meets on Shaadi because they mesh more with her style of dating, which is a bit closer to eastern style but is personally driven and her own spin on it. She checks out what biodata they have online and then reaches out to see if they’re interested in arranging a meetup for coffee, then as soon as they meet she lays out what she’s looking to build, what kind of timeline she’s thinking, what’s okay and isn’t, goals for where/how their family would live and function, information about their families of origin and their dating histories. They discuss these points over a coffee and see if there’s chemistry as well as compatibility in goals, and if everything lines up, try dating. When she tried doing that with guys she met from Match, she either felt the need to pretend to be more go with the flow and not lay her cards out on the table, or she started laying her cards out on the table and the guys reacted poorly. It took a while, but now she knows what she wants and knows how to push herself to be authentic in that pursuit. For her, the more revolutionary choice was in choosing to embrace the fact that she wants to build a family, and she’s choosing to be herself while looking for a true match, and that there’s nothing wrong with wanting what she wants and choosing to be single until finding what’s right for her.

      And of course, while she’s wading through those waters, the calls and emails from aunties all over who “know a nice young doctor who recently divorced….” keep coming, along with blessings and prayers that this year will “finally be the year for her” and reminders that it’s “not fair to her younger sisters, she needs to marry to they can go on with their lives”.

  • Cleo

    I have a close friend who is committed to staying in an unhealthy relationship. It’s not abusive (yet, but it could easily get there), but I don’t think she’s happy, though she’s doing a good job of convincing herself she is.

    It’s supposed to be a poly relationship, but he gets pissy when she dates other people and he has multiple other partners who she’s supposed to be fine with.

    He tells her he’s not interested in moving the relationship forward from where they are now (dating, living apart, and her as a secondary partner) and she’s always wanted to be married, have kids, etc.

    She is brilliant and has always relished a partner who is her intellectual equal and has ambition, drive, and follow-through. He isn’t as smart as her by a long shot and has no ambition – he’s fine living in his efficiency apartment and working a retail job he doesn’t like (Nothing against retail, my judgment is about the fact that he’s not fulfilled and isn’t looking for something else because he’s admittedly too lazy).

    I’m supporting her, asking her to examine her feelings when she points out something he did that annoys her (which is often), but she has a HUGE fear of being alone, so I’m afraid she’s going to take the road Anjali didn’t take and stay with him just to have a warm body available to her.

    All this to say props to Anjali – you are amazing for making such a hard choice and your life sounds amazing!

    • anonynon

      This was my life, it really sucked. A poly relationship with an imbalanced expectation that I was supposed to be fine with whatever he did but he was welcome to be pissy about me doing the same. I have friends who do poly very successfully, but I eventually realized that 1) our relationship wasn’t healthy, 2) I was doing all sorts of emotional labor that wasn’t being reciprocated, 3) I was basically hoping he’d decide that I “was enough” – which was unlikely to happen, and 4) I wanted to be with someone who I didn’t need to convince to get married/have kids.

      Leaving was the best thing I ever did, and now I’m with someone who makes it clear how f-ed up that relationship was.

  • Kate

    This same sentiment happens a lot in super conservative, religious small towns. I’m 31 and hopefully getting married next year, but before I met FH I was getting the marriage pressure from my mom.

    She legitimately believes it’s sinning for me to be living alone independently and working because “there’s no spiritual (read; male) head of your house.” *eyeroll*

    • Wow, I haven’t heard that idea vocalized before by conservative religious people. I know that some people don’t want women to teach their sons in religious settings, but I have not heard it voiced out loud that a single woman couldn’t/shouldn’t live/work on her own. I think I’d have a list in mind ready of unmarried female leaders in the Bible (if the critics use the Bible in their religion, of course!) to throw back examples that they could relate to…Martha and Mary, Dorcas… Maybe you could buy your mom a copy of the book Jesus Feminist? Or have it on the coffee table next time she comes over?

  • Amandalikeshummus

    In high school, in Catholic-school religion class of all places, there was a lesson on vocations. They talked about religious vocations and marriage, of course; but then they also talked about being single as an option. It was like, “You can contribute to your community in so many ways ect ect.” Obviously there was patriarchal bs in that unit, and the single option was only about celibate singlehood. But high-school me separated the grain from the chaff and was like, “That’s awesome! Maybe I can get married later; but that single life sounds so great.” I really think that one little unit early on gave me the confidence to only pursue relationships that I felt great in and to really hold off on thinking about marriage until I was ready, not when society would tell me be ready.

    In Catholic school, no less!

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  • mjh

    Anjali, I’m glad you’re doing your thing, living your life and writing about it. We need as many narratives of brown girl life in mainstream blogs/media/etc as we can get.

    • Anjali M.

      Thanks! It’s definitely uncomfortable to write about being vulnerable, but the positive responses have only reinforced the need to continue bringing my voice to the mainstream and diversifying the experiences. :)

  • schumannhertz

    Yo, this, but with romance books. I devoured fucking metric tons of em when I was a wee sprite growing up and boy did they fuck with my romantic expectations – I was supposed to be virginal, yet the bomb at sex. Smart and sassy but not as smart and sassy as the guy. He needed to be wealthy, hot, and smart and broody but who cared about kind or funny?

    Messed up. Thankfully, I grew up, got over these weird ideas, and am dating a man who isn’t really like those men in the romance books and is all the more better for it!

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  • Staria

    There are so many different ways I thought I’d meet someone to marry. One way I thought was going to happen for a long time was that when I finished university, I thought I would definitely meet someone in the city I was moving to for work. I’d attended university in a small country town, and grew up in an even smaller coastal town. So surely I would meet way more people in a city?! I did meet various boyfriends through social activities and I really thought the one I met at dance class was it. None of them ended up lasting though. I had this thought one day: My (future) husband doesn’t live here… and it was very calming. Eventually, for many reasons, I moved back to my home town’s area when I was 29. I decided I could live wherever I wanted and I’d start there. I met my now-husband just under a year later, through reluctant online dating (back when it was still uncool and people teased you about it). The best thing to do, is to live life exactly as you want it, and include some dating / opportunities to meet people in that, if that’s what you’d like.

  • Yes. It’s a beautiful state of being you’ve found. I appreciate you posting here specially. As a hopeless romantic yet very comfortable single woman, everything you wrote resonates. Cheers to leading a successful, satisfying life!

  • Penny

    My niece explores this issue on her YouTube channel and her approach is pretty darn funny. One video is about a single woman at a bridal shower and how all the married women keep saying there’s nothing wrong with being single though they really mean there is LOL. The other one explores falling in love with love … romantic blunders. (I won’t be link dropping but if you want a laugh these and more can be found at Abbey Howe or #howefunny)