“What are you supposed to do on a date?” my aunt asked me a few months ago. “Tell me so I don’t look stupid.” We were talking on the phone as she got ready for her first-ever dinner “date” with my uncle — they’ve been married for 23 years, but it took her turning 45 for him to take her out. (A story for another time.)
“You’re asking the wrong person,” I told her. “I’ve never been on one.” It was a fib, but one I uttered almost without thinking, adopting a nonchalance I have perfected over years of lying to my family about my whereabouts, my weekend plans, and most importantly, my love life.
In my experience, there’s a specific style of raising children reserved for the eldest daughters in South Asian families. We are taught to be obedient to a fault. We’re trained to be our siblings’ proxy parents, and are told that in order to uphold the family’s pride and respect, we must never indulge in vices like alcohol or drugs — or dating.
As the oldest child in my north Indian family, I was raised to conform to these standards. As such, when I had my first boyfriend at 14, telling my parents didn’t even feel like an option. I knew if they found out, they’d make my fledgling courtship — which consisted mostly of exhausting our daily text message limit sending each other <3 and :* emoticons and getting a rush out of sneakily holding hands in class — into a much bigger deal than it was. And that’s exactly what happened. Digging through my school bag one day, my folks found a notebook that contained our innocent attempts at flirting. I was grounded for the rest of the school year so I could “avoid distractions and focus on studying,” and I was beaten. (Corporal punishment is, sadly, common in some South Asian families, and I was no stranger to it.)
Though upsetting, the newly imposed restrictions didn’t affect me all that much. I stopped seeing that first boyfriend only a few months later, but I kept dating — I just got better at hiding it. I could make chats disappear in seconds if my mum had a sudden urge to look through my phone. I learned how to pull off day pub trips with a guy under the guise of quick errands. At home, I was still the responsible older daughter — choosing to go to university in my home city so I could help my brother with school, turning down a dream internship so I could look after my mother when she was sick, acting as the de facto ombudsman every time my parents had an argument.
That’s not to say I ever grew accustomed to hiding my dating, exactly. If it had been up to me, I would have loved to vent to my parents about the insensitive joke the boy I was talking to made about my anxiety, or the fact that I was questioning my sexuality. But I couldn’t without risking the loss of whatever little freedom I had while living at home. So I continued straddling these dual roles for a few years. I never complained, but having to conceal my true self wore me down.
Then, I met someone special — someone who checked off all the boxes, including ones I didn’t even know were on my list. For the first time, I wanted to prioritise my own happiness above the fulfilment of my responsibilities at home. On Valentine’s Day that year, instead of helping my brother prepare for his last year exams, I faked a work emergency to spend the night in this guy’s car, wrapped up in his arms. Missing elaborate family dinners was no biggie if I could spend the evening with him instead, gorging on street food, and laughing until my stomach hurt. In a rather short span of time, this relationship became my safe space. I wanted to protect it for as long as possible, which obviously meant hiding it from you-know-who.
But it didn’t take long for my parents to find out. It happened after I was accepted to do an masters: I celebrated over drinks with friends, and came home drunk. That would have been enough to infuriate my parents (no drinking, remember?), but they also took the opportunity to snoop through my phone, and found several missed calls from my boyfriend. They pieced two and two together, and gave me an ultimatum: If I didn’t end it, I wouldn’t get to go to do my MA, and would instead be “married off.” I didn’t doubt for a second that they were serious.
It had been seven years since I’d found myself trying to explain away my first secret boyfriend to my parents, and here I was again, doing the same thing. But this time, I’d learned enough to know that I should be following my heart. That meant continuing to see this boy, whom I loved (as I told him between sobs on the phone that night), behind my parents’ back. Even as they grew more vigilant, I sneaked around, using my friends as alibis as I spent days painting the town red and nights in shady hotels with him. I thought I’d found the One. Ours would be a classic, Bollywood-style story where true love eventually wins over the girl’s disapproving parents.
Instead, soon after I moved out of the country to study, my boyfriend decided the distance wasn’t working for him and we parted ways. The break-up was so painful that I frequently wondered if my parents were actually in the right. Were they worried that I’d end up getting irreversibly hurt if I continued to wear my heart on my sleeve? Were they trying to be picky about the people I dated so I wouldn’t end up with someone who wasn’t right for me?
But after I healed from the breakup, I could acknowledge that even if my parents’ actions did come from a place of love and concern, it didn’t absolve them for treating me the way that they did. I was now living thousands of miles away from my family, and the distance allowed me to explore who I am outside of the role of “eldest daughter” in my family. I could see how I’d used dating as a way to navigate my identity. It was one of the only ways I could express myself while I was growing up in a restrictive household, and one thing I could do that was just for me — especially when I was expected to do so much for others.
Even as I was able to acknowledge my complicated relationship to dating, that awareness didn’t help me overcome the consequences of having lived a double life for so long. I still view romantic relationships as an illicit secret that I should hide, even when there’s no one to hide them from. I also tend to see my partnerships as ticking time bombs. Even as an independent adult, my subconscious approaches every potential relationship as though, sooner or later, my parents will find out about it, and it will be over. Because I fear my relationships will never meet a natural end, I self-sabotage to ensure the choice of ending them is mine. I also do this because I fear getting tied down to the wrong person, like my parents did.
My upbringing has colored my perception of the dating world, and caused me to lose what could have been stable, long-lasting relationships based on mutual care and support; I regret the way some of them have ended. Meanwhile, my relationship with my parents has improved in the past two years, but some part of me will always resent them — and, frankly, blame them for my inability to sustain a healthy, functional relationship.
But I also believe in my own ability to grow, to shed the “precocious elder daughter” persona that at first was forced upon me and then became something to which I absentmindedly clung. More recently, I’ve been practicing meeting people just for the sake of getting to know them as I want to, without the baggage of wondering what my family would say or do if they knew. This realisation has been freeing, and has helped me stop attaching meaning to every date, fling, or encounter.
I’m also trying to explore each new facet of myself that appears in this process, one virtual date or socially distanced walk in the park at a time. At times, I do long to meet someone who will be my partner — not just in this self-exploration exercise, but in all aspects of life. But until that happens, I’m loving meeting myself.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's bi-monthly column will feature a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email email@example.com.