“Marriage is not a business deal,” I repeat often and fervently to my parents. They consistently reply to me in mindless unison: “We just want you to settle down.”
Growing up in a traditional Sri Lankan household, the child of immigrants who sacrificed everything to give me and my brother a better life, it’s hard to say no to them. As a child, my parents successfully instilled in me a fear of men that affected the way I saw them; talking to men felt shameful and wrong. I still had guy friends throughout my childhood, but I always made girl friends faster.
When I got to high school, this fear manifested as a sense of awkwardness. I didn’t know how to talk to boys my age. I expected to find my first love in high school, as so many rom-coms seemed to promise was the norm, but I could barely have a conversation with a boy, let alone date one. Meanwhile, all of my friends were in long-term relationships or were jumping from one guy to another, having fun and racking up dating stories that felt out of reach to me.
At university, I figured that living on campus, away from my parents for the first time, would give me the freedom and exposure to a dating life I could never have had before. What I didn’t expect was a shift in my family’s expectations. When I visited home for winter break during my first year, one of the first questions my mum asked me was if I had a boyfriend. I didn’t understand how the transition from getting in trouble if I was friends with a man to suddenly being expected to find my life partner had happened so quickly.
I didn’t understand how the transition from getting in trouble if I was friends with a man to suddenly being expected to find my life partner had happened so quickly.
I realised my lack of meaningful experience with men was a product of years of cultural oppression. I understand that my parents just wanted me to be safe, but having to go from fearing men to learning how to be comfortable around them enough to trust and develop a relationship with them took time. I was revelling in finally having the freedom to speak to them without fear of being judged, but I found out there’s a difference between making small talk and opening up to someone.
During my last year of university, I finally downloaded Tinder. I enjoyed the attention and validation I received, but making a connection was difficult. I swiped religiously, but backed out of every date until I finally met someone who convinced me he was worth meeting.
At 21, I’d never felt anything for anyone, let alone feelings of love, but within a year I knew that’s what it was. The connection was rare and pure and it was the loveliest thing I've ever felt. I didn’t factor in what I would have to tell my parents when the time came — that I’d fallen for someone who wasn’t Sri Lankan, didn’t speak our language, and wasn’t a part of our religion.
And though I was willing to look past these differences, he wasn't. Culture got in the way when he realised his religious beliefs weren’t compatible with our relationship. I’ll never know if it was genuine cultural differences or if it was just an easy excuse to break up. Either way, it was devastating.
After I mourned that relationship, I downloaded every dating app. This time, older and less emotionally available, I finally got those dating stories that I longed for in high school, even if it turned out they were mostly negative — being taken to a food court for a meal, ending up at a sex club without being asked, and being accused of cheating when I’d never been taken on an actual date.
Here's what I learned.
My generation is plagued by technology that affects the way we connect to people. The attention span we have scrolling through social media is the same attention span we have on dating apps. We constantly cycle through the same bland, introductory conversation with multiple people that lasts the standard one to three business days and no more. If I’m asked “What do you do for a living?” one more time I might combust.
On the other side of the coin, I have my parents pressuring me to let them find someone for me. An arranged marriage, in modern times, isn’t what you think. It wouldn’t mean being forced onto the altar against my will (although this is still a reality for many in the world). It’s more like a dating app run by your family. They screen the potential candidate — looking at pictures, job information, educational background — and if the person meets their standards, then they connect you and let fate take its course. It doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
But I’ve intentionally fought against having my family involved in making such pivotal decisions in my life for a long time. I chose to work in media instead of STEM and I chose to move out on my own — both unacceptable things for “a girl” to do, but these were steps I took to build my future in spite of what my family wanted. And my family’s views have evolved and progressed because I’ve made these decisions and succeeded in my pursuits.
My parents may still believe that getting married and starting a family is the only way to feel settled. But marriage isn’t something I should have to do to feel complete.
They may still believe that getting married and starting a family is the only way to feel settled. But marriage isn’t something I should have to do to feel complete. I’m 26 now and working on feeling complete in myself — growing in my career, nurturing the friendships and relationships that matter, and learning more about the world and how I fit into it. I love and fought for my freedom too much to give it up for just anybody.
I want to live up to the same standards that I expect and hope for in return. Being perfect on paper — whether that’s via Hinge or one of my parents’ candidates — isn’t enough. So someday, if the right person comes along, I'll be proud to let them know the person I’ve become and get to know them without interference — no profiles necessary.