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;
- 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.)