This article was last updated on May 16, 2022
Malvika Sheth knows there will be a reminder from her parents every few weeks about how to start dating Indian women.
It might be a casual comment during a conversation or a WhatsApp message, but the meaning is always the same for the 23-year-old Los Angeles-based video creator: it’s time to start thinking about getting married. Her Indo-American friends, who are roughly her age, are getting the same kinds of clues.
“Our parents won’t say, ‘You need to get married,’ but they’ll gently remind us every week or every other week that ‘your friend got married,’ or’maybe I should start looking,’ or ‘do you want us to introduce you to someone,'” she adds. “All of these things when we sense a little bit of pressure.”
Sheth is well aware that her parents are not pressuring her to find a boyfriend, and they are certainly not pressuring her to marry. It’s just how things have been done in the past. While marriage and motherhood are important in many cultures, in South Asian societies, there is a historical and societal expectation that young women marry and have children; these acts are considered as achievements.
We experience it through subtle comments and sly digs from extended family and the community, and we see it in reality shows like Indian Matchmaking, Bollywood film plots, and even the rise of dating Indian women apps.
“I think it’s often difficult for them to comprehend that there are other concerns in this generation,” Sheth says. And other indicators of what makes a life rich and fulfilling. However, many first- and second-generation women in North America are rejecting this expectation, opting to not prioritize or, in some cases, altogether disregard dating and marriage in favor of redefining success on their own terms.
Young women are choosing not to prioritize dating Indian women and marriage, which is not altogether surprising. In fact, for many in 2022, it will be the norm. Rising property prices, a shaky employment market, and a focus on career and self-fulfillment have resulted in young people across the country deferring marriage until later in life – if at all.
For others, it’s a no-brainer, but for those of us from South Asian cultures, the decision can be more challenging as we try to meet familial expectations while carving our own paths. Dr. Jyothsna Bhat (PhD), a Newton, PA-based clinical psychologist who frequently deals with members of the South Asian community on mental health issues, says, “Marriage is such a draw in our culture.” “It’s a wonderful thing and a celebration, but it’s stressed more than any other non-Asian [culture].”
Part of it has to do with the fact that South Asian society is collectivist, emphasizing the total above the individual (unlike some *ahem* western civilizations). While this can be beneficial in terms of offering support and fostering a feeling of community where people look out for one another, it can also entail prioritizing others before yourself for the greater good.
South Asian culture is patriarchal, honoring males as providers while women have traditionally been viewed as “burdens” on their families due to gender roles that prevent them from working. The only method for women to contribute to the family unit is through marriage and the continuation of family lines. While times have (obviously) changed, this mentality has endured as a remnant of decades.
“There’s this societal and moral obligation tied to marriage,” Bhat argues. “There’s a lot of pressure to stick to these lines in terms of continuing a family line and finding suitable spouses.” As the diaspora spreads outside of India and around the world, some people value the preservation of culture and cultural lines even more instead of dating Indian women.
Marriage has a social currency since it is one of the few avenues for young South Asians, particularly women, to express their independence. “In South Asian houses, you might be 30 years old and still live at home as a young person,” Bhat explains. “However, the moment you have that marriage or engagement in your hands, you’re considered an adult.” In other words, getting engaged can provide you more freedom in some ways. (It should be mentioned that this isn’t true for everyone.)
Dating Indian women experience of Sheth:
Sheth was impatient to obtain her own place and didn’t want to wait for an engagement. She moved out of her parents’ house and into her own apartment two years ago, when she was 21. While they attempted to “hold on to her” for a while longer, they eventually agreed and gave their approval. “It’s kind of lovely [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 my relationships with them and others could be happier,” she adds.
[Some parents] are unaware of the impact it is having on women who are made to feel as if they have done something wrong by not marrying.
Jyothsna Bhat, Ph.D.
While going against the grain might be empowering for some, it can also cause family strife and add to feelings of isolation and stress for young women who choose a different path. “It causes a great deal of depression.” It causes anxiety, and it causes people to want to live parallel lives, hiding from their parents or families whether they want to stay single or whether they’re on the gender spectrum,” Bhat adds. And, while rare, it can have serious implications in some circumstances.
“It’s interesting how [some parents] don’t realize how much of an impact it has on women who are made to feel like they’ve done something wrong by not marrying,” Bhat continues. Even though the times have changed slightly, the pressure remains. It just appears to be different.
Dating Indian women experience of Renuka:
Renuka, who did not want her last name revealed, is a product manager in Toronto who moved to Canada from India in 2019. Renuka’s parents were supportive of her career objectives and never put any pressure on her to marry, pushing her to apply for MBA schools around the world. However, when she struggled to get the grades she needed for foreign programs, they attempted to fix her problem by marrying her. Renuka’s parents balked when relatives in the United States advised she marry an NRI (Non-Resident Indian) so she could study abroad more easily. “All of my relatives began giving me matches.” And I believe my parents were becoming overwhelmed with the number of matches arriving because they couldn’t say no to the relatives without offending them, so they asked me to investigate.”
Renuka, who is now 32, was blunt. Her response? “That’s not going to happen.” She’s still unmarried — and happy — after four years. She also made it to Canada by herself. Renuka explains, “The only way you can push something you don’t want to commit to is if you’re really convinced about what else you like.” “I’ve always said that I’m going to get an education, that I’m going to get an MBA, that I’m going to focus on my job.” Nobody had anything more to say because I was able to work all the time.”
Renuka recognizes that, while admirable, this way of thinking has apparent flaws. It implies that in order to avoid the pressures of marriage, women must engage in other activities that are regarded “worthy” (by whom?). It also implies that individuals cannot just refuse to marry because they do not want to marry. But it’s worked for them so far. Renuka’s most recent romantic relationship was a “fling” when she was 19, while Sheth has never had a serious relationship. They’re not on dating apps like their contemporaries, they’re not scouting get-togethers with pals for a gorgeous possible paramour, and they’re saying no to any of these parent-engineered matching for the time being. Renuka explains, “It’s not because I couldn’t find prospects; it’s because I knew if I did this, I’d lose my focus.”
Dating Indian women experience of Neelam:
Neelam Tewar, a consultant and motivational speaker in her 30s, had a much more deliberate reason for deferring marriage. Tewar and her ex-boyfriend split up when she was in her early twenties and living in New York City. She’d done everything she’d been taught to do to maintain the relationship, including being accommodating and taking care of her partner, but it had run its course. “I was like, ‘Wow, so you can sacrifice, be a supportive partner, and do everything you want?'” But it’s possible that it won’t work out.” It was a paradigm-shifting epiphany that she should prioritize her own well-being. “It just reinforced the notion that marriage isn’t a given [in general].”
I can go to whatever hobby I choose and do whatever I want, which provides me a great deal of pleasure.
Sheth, Renuka, and Tewar have found success and fulfillment in other aspects of their lives by focusing on goals other than relationships. Yes, marriage might be wonderful, but Renuka also appreciates the fact that she is a single woman who has left her homeland and built a life for herself on the other side of the globe. “Being able to do everything here from scratch without any familial or financial assistance gives me the confidence that I can do anything in life… I can go to any hobby I want and do whatever I want, which provides me a lot of pleasure.”
“Most importantly,” Tewar continues, “it provides you time.” Taking the focus off of seeking a mate allows people to devote more time and energy to nurturing friendships, careers, families, and hobbies. “Spending almost two years with myself was a great blessing for me because I had a lot of self-healing and generational trauma that I was really focused on working through,” Sheth continues. “I can’t image what it would have been like for another human to be there.”
Tewar is content and fortunate to have a wonderful family, friends, and the time to pursue her own personal goals, contributing to society in ways that are meaningful to her. “For me, it manifests itself in my entrepreneurial vision, with the students [I teach], on my podcast, and when I’m on stage [speaking].”
While these women are emphasizing other elements of their lives, this does not imply they are wholly opposed to marriage (or criticizing anyone who chooses to focus on it); rather, they are reframing how they see it — and themselves inside it. They don’t believe in the problematic notion that your husband should be your best friend, lover, and “other half.”
Instead, they see themselves as equals, deserving of a partner who improves their life rather than being defined by their existence. “Obviously, there’s a lot that goes into [marriage] planning.” The romantic image of the American Dream [and] sharing it with a life partner, having financial security; it’s all part of this’success,'” Bhat says. “However, I don’t think [young women] intentionally look at finding one spouse who defines you and offers you a status symbol as an elite member of society.”
Sheth comments, “Marriage is different today than it was when my parents were my age.” “It used to be about finding your ‘better half,’ but nowadays, many people, including myself, are attempting to learn to be entire on our own.” So, if we find a partner who understands that, is entire themselves, and is prepared to move forward with us even if our goals differ, then we can start having deeper conversations about relationships and, if you’re so inclined, marriage.”
Renuka shares these sentiments. “If I ever want to get married, I’m not going to go for a boy who earns three times as much as I do,” she adds. “I’m at the point now where I need a companion, not a financial provider for my needs.”
While we may be figuring things out for ourselves, elder generations are more difficult to persuade. When it comes to managing this new dynamic with people who may need time to appreciate a different perspective, Bhat advocates patience and dialogue. We must also accept that there will always be a tug of war and a necessity to compromise. Sheth says she’s continuously bouncing back and forth between elements of her life where she subscribes more to Indian ideals (family-driven, communal) and American values (individualistic) (more individualistic).
I finally came to the realization that if I can’t make myself happy, then I can’t make anyone else happy.
The key to straddling this line, according to Bhat, is to try to empathize with our entire community. “How can we make more open and accepting connections with others?” I believe that if we want these things to improve, we must first open ourselves and our community up.”
Sheth, for one, believes that any prodding from her parents stems from a place of love and a desire for her happiness. Family members are sending her job advertisements for stylist positions that would offer her a more organized, 9 to 5 work life, much as they don’t necessarily comprehend her career as a content producer. “I believe that people don’t comprehend the lifestyle that I’ve chosen,” she explains. “And it stems from a desire to do something good for yourself, but not realizing that you’ve already established your priorities.”
She’s currently concentrating on her content production business and making the most important person in her life happy — herself. “I used to take everything my parents said to heart,” she adds, “because the core of who I am is constantly trying to do something that makes my parents proud.” “But I finally came to the realization that if I can’t make myself happy, then I can’t make anyone else happy,” she says. “Rather than being frustrated with your parents because they want different things for your life than you do, it’s more about explaining things to them in a friendly manner.” Great if they comprehend. And if they don’t, that’s fine, because they’re just looking out for your best interests.”