Every few weeks, Malvika Sheth can be certain of one thing — she’s going to get a reminder from her parents. It might come through a WhatsApp message, or be a casual comment during a conversation, but for the 23-year-old Los Angeles-based content creator, the implication is always the same: It’s time to start thinking about getting married. Her friends, around the same age and also Indo-American, are getting the same kinds of hints.
“Our parents won’t directly tell us, ‘you need to get married,’ but basically they’re gently reminding us every week or every other week, ‘your friend got married,’ or ‘maybe I should start looking,’ and ‘do you want us to introduce you to someone,’” she says. “All these things where we feel that there's a little bit of pressure.”
Sheth knows her parents aren’t intentionally pushing her to find a boyfriend, and they’re definitely not forcing her to get married. It’s just the way things have always been done. While marriage and motherhood are integral to many cultures, there’s a historical and societal expectation within South Asian communities that young women get married and have children; these acts are seen as an accomplishment. And it’s not just our parents presenting it as the be-all-end-all for women — we experience it via subtle comments and sly digs from extended family and the community, and we see it in reality shows like Indian Matchmaking, the plots of Bollywood films, and even in the rise of Desi dating apps.
“I feel like sometimes it's harder for them to understand that in this generation there can be other priorities,” Sheth says. And other measures of what constitutes a rich and fulfilled life. But many first- and second-gen women in North America are no longer subscribing to this expectation, making the decisions for themselves to not prioritize or, in some cases, completely check out on dating and marriage and redefining success on their own terms.
It may not sound entirely novel that young women are choosing not to prioritize dating and marriage. In fact, in 2022, for many it’s the norm. Rising home prices, a precarious job market, and a priority on career and self-fulfillment means that young people across the country have been making the decision to get married at a later age — if at all. It’s a no-brainer for some, but the decision can be more difficult for those of us in South Asian cultures as we try to live up to familial expectations while forging our own paths. “Marriage is such a pull in our community,” says Dr. Jyothsna Bhat (PsyD), a New Jersey-based clinical psychologist who often works with members of the South Asian community on issues around mental health. “It's a celebration and it's a beautiful thing, but more than any non-Asian [culture], it’s very emphasized.”
Part of it stems from that fact that South Asian culture is collectivist, prioritizing the whole over the individual (unlike some *ahem* western cultures). While this can be positive, providing support and a sense of community where people look after each other, it can also mean putting others first instead of yourself for the greater good. South Asian culture is patriarchal, celebrating men as providers, while women have historically often been considered “burdens” to their families, based on gender roles that dictate they can’t work. This leaves marriage — and the continuation of family lines — as the way women are able to contribute to the family unit. While times have (obviously) changed, this ideology still remains, a relic of generations of heritage.
“Marriage has this social and moral obligation that's been attached [to it],” Bhat explains. “There's a pressure to stay along these lines as far as continuing a family line, finding the appropriate partners.” This retaining of culture and cultural lines becomes even more important to some as the diaspora continues to branch outside of India and across the world.
Marriage also comes with a social currency, as one of few ways young South Asian people, especially women, can assert independence. “In South Asian households, you could be 30 living at home and you're still under the roof as a young person,” Bhat explains. “But the minute you have that marriage or that engagement in your hands, then you're now seen as more of an adult.” In other words, getting engaged can, in a way, offer you more freedom. (It should be noted that, of course, this isn’t the case for everyone.)
Sheth didn’t want to wait for an engagement to get her own place. Two years ago, at 21, she made the decision to move out of her parent’s home and into her own apartment. While they did try to “hang onto her” a little longer, they eventually agreed and gave their blessing. “In a way I actually think it is sort of sweet [that they wanted me to stay at home longer], but I had to be firm in my decision, and move forward on my own so that I could be happy, and in turn, my relationships with them and others could be happier,” she says.
[Some parents] don't understand how much of an effect it's having on women who are sort of made to feel that they've done something wrong by not getting married.
Dr. Jyothsna Bhat
While for some it can be empowering to go against the grain, it can also lead to discord within families, and contribute to feelings of isolation and stress for young women choosing a different path. “It creates a lot of depression. It contributes to anxiety, it contributes to people wanting to live double lives, hiding from their parents or their families whether they want to stay single, whether they're on the spectrum when it comes to gender,” Bhat says. And in some cases, while more rare, it can have dire consequences.
“It's interesting how [some parents] don't understand how much of an effect it's having on women who are sort of made to feel that they've done something wrong by not getting married,” Bhat adds. And while times have changed slightly, the pressure still persists. It just looks kind of different.
Renuka, who asked that her last name not be used, is a Toronto-based product manager who moved to Canada from India in 2019. Renuka’s parents were supportive of her career goals and never pressured her about marriage, encouraging her as she applied for MBA programs abroad. But when she struggled to obtain the scores she wanted for overseas programs, they attempted to use marriage as a way to solve her then-current problem. When relatives in the U.S. suggested Renuka get married to an NRI (Non-Resident Indian) in order to be able to study abroad more easily, her parents faltered. “All the relatives kept sending me all these matches. And at one point I think my parents were getting overwhelmed with so many matches coming in because they can't say no to the relatives or they’re going to anger them, so they asked me to look into it.”
Renuka, now 32, didn’t mince words. Her answer? “No, that’s not happening.” Four years later she’s still single — and happy. And, she made it to Canada all on her own. “The only way you can push anything that you don't want to commit to is if you're very sure about what else you like,” Renuka says. “For me, it was always that I'm getting an education, that I am going to do an MBA, that I'm going to focus on my career. And because I was able to work all the time, nobody had anything else to say.”
While admirable, Renuka gets that there are obviously issues with this line of thinking. It implies that in order to escape the pressures of marriage, women have to have other pursuits deemed “worthy” (worthy by who?). It also connotes that they can’t just not want to get married because they don’t want to get married. But so far, it’s worked for them. Renuka’s last romantic relationship was a “fling” when she was 19, and Sheth has yet to have a serious partner. Right now, they’re not on dating apps like their peers, they’re not scoping out get-togethers with friends for a hunky potential paramour, and for the moment, they’re saying no to any of these parent-instrumented matchups. “It's not because I didn't find prospects,” Renuka says, “but because I knew if I do this that I'm going to lose my focus.”
For Neelam Tewar, an entrepreneur, speaker and strategist, her decision to put off marriage was much more intentional. She and her ex broke up a decade ago when Tewar was in her late 20s and living in New York City. She’d done everything she’d been taught to do to nurture the relationship — that she should be amenable and take care of her partner — but it still ran its course. “I was like: Wow, so you can sacrifice, you can be a supportive partner, you can do whatever. But it may not work out.” It was a mentality-changing realization that she should look after herself first and foremost. “It just sealed and cemented this idea that marriage is not a given [in general].”
I can go to any hobbies that I want, I can do anything I want, and that gives me a lot of pleasure.
Opening themselves up to priorities outside of relationships has allowed Sheth, Renuka, and Tewar to find success and fulfillment in other areas of their lives. Yes, marriage can be great, but Renuka also celebrates the fact that she’s a single woman who left her home country and has made a life for herself completely on her own on the other side of the world. “To be able to do everything here from scratch without any family support, without any financial support, that drives all that courage in me that I can do anything in life… I can go to any hobbies that I want, I can do anything I want, and that gives me a lot of pleasure.”
And, more than anything, Tewar adds, “it gives you time.” Taking the focus off of finding a partner can allow people to put that time and energy into friendships, their career, their family, and interests, and nurture them. “It was a huge blessing for me this past almost two years spending with myself because I had a lot of self healing and generational trauma that I was really working on working through,” adds Sheth. “I can't even imagine what it would have been like for another human being to be a part of that.”
Tewar’s happy and blessed with a great family, friends, and time to work on her own personal path, contributing to society in a way that she finds fulfilling and with things that matter to her. “For me, it shows up in my entrepreneurial vision, it shows up with the students [I teach], it shows up on my podcast, it shows up when I'm on stage [speaking].”
While these women are prioritizing other aspects of their lives, that doesn’t mean they’re completely against marriage (or judging anyone who chooses to focus on it), they’re just reframing how they view it — and themselves within it. They don’t subscribe to the problematic idea that your spouse must be your best friend, your best lover, and your “other half.” Instead, they view themselves as equals and worthy of a partner who enriches their lives, and not whose existence their lives are defined by. “There's obviously a lot that goes into thinking about [marriage]. There's the romantic notion, the American Dream [and] sharing that with a life partner, having that financial stability; it's all part of this ‘success,’” Bhat says. “But finding one partner that defines you and gives you a status symbol as an elite member of society, I don't know [young women] consciously look at it that way.”
“Marriage is different today than it was when my parents were my age,” Sheth says. “Maybe earlier it really was about finding your ‘better half,’ but today, many like me are trying to learn to be whole on their own. So now if we find a partner who appreciates that, is whole themselves, and is willing to move forward together even when certain goals might be different, then deeper conversations about relationships and — if you're so inclined — marriage, begin.”
Renuka has similar thoughts. “If I aspire to get married someday, I'm not going to look for a boy who is going to be three times more earning than myself, because I am at that state now where I need somebody who's a companion, not somebody who's a financial supplier to my needs,” she says.
While we may be figuring this out for ourselves, it’s harder to convince older generations. Bhat advises time and communication when it comes to navigating this new dynamic with, who may need time to understand a different perspective. We also need to recognize that there may always be that push and pull and a need to compromise. Growing up as an American who’s culturally Indian, Sheth says she’s constantly going back and forth between aspects of her life where she subscribes more to Indian values (family-driven, communal), and American (more individualistic).
I finally got to a point in my life where I was like: Listen, if I can't make myself happy, then I can't make anyone happy.
The key to straddling this line, Bhat says, is trying to be empathic towards our community at large. “How can we connect with others in a more open and accepting way? I think if we want these things to change, it's going to happen [by opening ourselves and our community up].”
For her part, Sheth says she knows that any nudging from her parents comes from a place of love, and ultimately wanting her to be happy. In the same way that they don’t necessarily understand her job as a content creator, with family members sending her job postings for stylist positions that would offer her a more structured, 9 to 5 work life. “I think people don't understand the way of life that I've chosen to live,” she says. “And it comes from still wanting something good for you, but just maybe not understanding that you already kind of have your priorities set.”
Currently, she’s focusing on her content creation work, as well as making the most important person happy — herself. “I used to take anything and everything that my parents said to heart, because I think the crux of who I am is always wanting to do something that makes my parents proud,” she says. “But I finally got to a point in my life where I was like: Listen, if I can't make myself happy, then I can't make anyone happy,” she says. “Instead of maybe being upset with your parents for wanting different things for your life than you do, it's more just about explaining to them kindly. If they understand, great. And if not, it's okay because they're also just coming from a place of wanting the best for you.”