Do Desis Date-to-Marry?
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
When Carrie Bradshaw said, “some love stories aren't epic novels, some are short stories”, I proceeded to shed a tear (because Team Aiden), and form my first real impression
of dating culture, albeit the intense cinematic portrayal. Casual dating - or multi-dating - has long been an elusive notion, characterised by awkward first date fumbles and short-lived romances. It is home to the dreaded ‘talking stage’, and its residents may or may not include the one that got away. Are you confused yet? At its essence, casual dating is as easy breezy as its name suggests; it is an emotional and/or physical relationship between two people without demanding or expecting the additional commitments of a more formal romantic relationship, as well as not necessarily entailing partner-exclusivity. A casual courtship; a relaxed relationship.
Despite what our aunties may think, the practise of ‘casual dating’ is not the glossy invention of Cosmopolitan (they always blame Cosmo), nor did it have a strong presence in my teenage years at school. If anything, the romantic relationships I observed in school set an early standard for long-term commitment (‘till graduation do us part’) and created a personal aversion to Pandora jewellery. Speaking generally, I found that our adolescent interpretation of love usually revolved around exclusive crushes and daydreaming about long-term dating; but then somewhere along the way, this perspective shifts to include casual dating. Why is that?
Perhaps, it is rooted in the psychological effects of romantically interacting with multiple people. Behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings explains that it is “an opportunity to not only find someone who feels right for us, but also as a way of learning something about ourselves and our own wants and needs,” (Bustle). Perhaps, it can be credited to the rise of online dating, with an increased accessibility to apps like Tinder, Bumble, or DilMil which thus increase our options. Digital dating has normalised the idea of fast matches and multiple love interests, and by extension, have created a larger societal impact. Atlantic dubbed it ‘The Five Years That Changed Dating’, with the prediction that these apps “would turn dating into a minimal-effort, transactional pursuit of on-demand hook-ups”. Perhaps, it is due to a combination of these multiple factors why casual dating has been rightfully normalised by our early 20’s. We are encouraged – by incessant dating app ads and perhaps pop culture - to branch out into the territory of casual dating, because these are supposedly the years to explore our options.
However, dating is entirely dependent on one’s personal choices and principles in life, so it would be irrational to assume dating culture as a one-size-fits-all term. We don’t all have – or rather, want – the same experiences. There is no right age or right way to date (as long as there is mutual consent and understanding of boundaries between those involved) because we are all impacted by various personal factors in life. Individuals have the freedom to choose, but it is heavily affected by our upbringing, cultural-religious beliefs, and influence of our parents. This can create an expectation of the son or daughter, to practise the same life choices as their parents and elders, because that’s how it should be done.
With this in mind, I wanted to investigate a behavioural dating pattern that is regularly ‘assigned’ to the South Asian community: dating to marry. Ironically, I first saw this term on a Desi meme page, that asked followers to share their opinions on whether they approached relationships with the intention to marry. The post, and its comments, made me question the existence of a cultural stereotype. Did people (outside and inside the cultural community) consider this concept to be exclusive to South-Asians? Can ‘dating-to-marry’ be considered a pattern, or a logical progression? Is ‘dating-to-marry’ inspired by a deeper-rooted South-Asian mentality concerning religion, tradition, and culture? Let’s discuss.
Dating to marry, represents the exact opposite of casual dating: expectation, commitment, and a traditional approach to partnership. The term itself implies that the relationship is intrinsically linked to the institution of marriage by effect of chronological progression. In that sense, it is a pattern, of meeting, dating, and then eventually committing to a partner; not to say that casual dating cannot evolve into this form of exclusivity.
It is understandable that the notion of ‘meeting-to-marry’, traditionally aligns with South-Asian culture with the practise of arranged marriages, which have evolved to be “very much a hybrid of the old world and new”. For Desis living abroad, there can be an added expectation to date within culture and religion, in a sense to preserve cultural identity in a western society. In all our different Asian cultures, we have a shared prioritisation of familial relationships. They are considered integral and beneficial to the health and wellbeing of its members, usually involving a large extended family. 20th century Indian sociologists also “emphasised the idea of the family as a unifying system of Indian society” (Bhandari, Titzmann). If growing up, our perception of a ‘relationship’ was not just limited to a couple, but rather a large family community, it makes perfect sense that we too aspire to acquire the same type of stability, or environment, usually through the process of marriage, which combines two families. Our desire to look for long-term commitment at the start of a relationship is rooted to (but not exclusively because of) the emphasis on traditional family values.
I believe it is illogical to say that this dating preference is exclusive to the South-Asian community, when the idea of love and relationships is deeply personal. In the past few years, we have progressed to reject solely heteronormative (and even monogamous) standards of relationships, because of the belief that relationships are not rigid constructs of assigned sexualities, genders, and roles. Furthermore, we have reached a point in society where the partnership of marriage is “not essential for societal survival” or financial progression. Individuals are not limited to marriages, to show a deeper level of commitment to each other. Alternatively, the belief that the social union of marriage is the ultimate bond is a sentiment shared by many other religions and cultures with an emphasis on family values. Yes, we have moved to be more understanding of all forms of modern partnership, however, a marriage is still very much considered the ideal goal, as it is the legal recognition of a union. Ultimately, agency should be given to the person, to choose how they want to approach dating and love. Within a relationship, there should be a mutual understanding of what the expectation of outcome is (marriage, no marriage), so both parties are aware of each other’s ambitions.
I conclude that the stereotype of ‘South Asian people date with the motivation to settle down’ has rapidly changed to be more inclusive of casual dating culture. However, wanting marriage as an ultimate goal is a choice shared by many many people for various personal reasons, with statistical proof in the number of marriages each year. Clearly, the ‘desire to settle’ down is not exclusive to the brown community. What should be normalised is the idea that the institution of marriage is not the only way to display commitment or love.
I reached out to fellow brown folk via Instagram (and a few weird texts) to ask them what they really thought about the concept of ‘dating to marry’. I invited people across an extended demographic to send me their thoughts, opinions, and personal stories to serve as anonymous anecdotes about dating life. I was curious to see to what extent their definition of casual dating was influenced by a cultural or religious upbringing, and if they entered relationships with ‘matrimonial’ intent. I sent these as prompts:
1) Do you think one’s culture or upbringing affects their motivations in a relationship?
2) Do you think the “end goal” for Desis who date has to be marriage? Or can it be financial stability, partnership without marriage, etc.?
Here are the responses:
“I 100% think that culture and upbringing affect dating, both in positive and negative ways. The positives can be things like an increased awareness of your own identity and values, and an appreciation for what you want from the future in your relationships; close family ties can make you want to be with someone who appreciates and gets on with your family as well. The negatives are well documented and often seen. There can be pressure on people (especially girls) to get married and reduced agency that a person has in their own relationship due to family needing to be involved.
I definitely think the end goal can be something other than marriage. Dating is not a term that is defined by the concept of marriage and it never has to be. In reference to diaspora Desis, the societies we live in have generally moved past the point where marriage as a financial and social union is necessary for societal survival. However, we do speak from a very privileged point of view and many Desis in more tightly knit, poorer or traditional communities don't have the freedom to live their lives wholly on their own terms due to many factors. So, while I don't think the end goal has to be marriage, I can understand for many people why it is.”
“I can't see Desis not getting married and being in a relationship - which is scary because I think we never consider it. Like culturally we are fed the narrative that we find someone, they meet the parents and then we get married, have kids and live happily ever after. It’s so strange because recently I have become so anti-marriage because I don't think 'love' exists. I think we fall in love with the comfort of a person and the economic stability they grant. But I don't feel like I have an option to be in a relationship and not get married - like if I'm in a relationship with a guy at age 23/24/25, he'd have to be the guy 'I'm going to marry' not the just a 'boyfriend'.”
“Dating to marry – I definitely think dating is more ‘serious’ in Desi culture generally. Like, you’re expected to not mess around and you’re not really ‘allowed’ to make mistakes. In terms of partnership without marriage, in Pakistani culture and considering Islamically, we kind of have to be married. I’m not sure how normalised partnership without marriage is in India. Wasn’t there a Bollywood movie about that recently talking about the taboos involved? [Luka Chuppi] I definitely think it should be normalised though because you can be ‘not married’ and still be committed.”
“My parents brought me up within the Indian culture in the house, but whenever I would interact with those outside my household or outside of the Desi community, I was interacting with the British culture as well. I don’t think people understand how jarring this can be sometimes, especially when it comes to relationships. I’ve primarily dated (white) British guys who have grown up in a very individualistic culture, while I have grown up in a collectivist culture. I feel like when you grow up in a collectivist culture, you are always taught to put others’ needs and feelings before yours. If you think about it, that works if other people are also doing the same thing. While you’re thinking about the needs of person B, they’re thinking about your needs too. It’s kind of a mutual understanding that you look out for each other. However, it doesn’t work when person A is raised in an individualistic culture and person B is raised in a collectivist culture. It can create quite a contrasting list of expectations, and therefore their motivations from a relationship. I was talking to the man I was seeing at the time about how if I could not see a stable future with a person, no matter how strongly I felt for them I would not be able to pursue it. His response was the exact opposite of mine, regardless of if he saw a stable future with the person or not, he would still pursue the relationship. His reasoning was that the memories he made and the joy he gained from the short relationship would outweigh the pain that he would inevitably experience letting go of it. At first, I was confused about his lack of self-preservation, surely you would want to diminish any opportunities that could bring you pain.
Why would you purposely put yourself in a situation that you know will hurt you? As soon as I asked him that question, I realised that we had fundamentally different motivations for seeking relationships, even the one we were in at that point. I was seeking stability, and he was seeking joy even if it came at the expense of his own heart. I was seeking stability even if it came at the expense of my own joy, and he was seeking joy even if it came at the expense of his own heart.
I don’t think the end goal for anyone dating (not just Desis) HAS to be anything! I feel that having an end goal is detrimental to the whole process. It creates massive expectations and puts so much pressure on you. In my mind, dating should be a fun way to meet other people and it’s a good way to find out more about yourself too (as cheesy as that sounds). It can be quite a liberating experience. The most important thing (for me) is that you went out and you had fun and you attempted to get to know another person. I think a lot can blossom out of that.”
Culture is such a big thing for people in general. But those who grow up in various cultures have to sort of form their own view of the world with multiple factors playing in. It’s really difficult and I know for me personally, my motivations in any sort of relationship, whether it’s familial or platonic or romantic, is still undefined. South Asian culture particularly prioritizes family. Relationships aren’t just restricted to the two people involved in the couple. It usually extends to involve the entire family. And that influences a lot of us kids to look for that sense of forever in our relationships. And marriage is such a big thing. It’s like the ultimate bond. So, I don’t think I’m in the minority when I say that most Asians (if not people overall) expect marriage to be the outcome of their romantic relationships.
Having dated men of different religions, I realised the way they interacted with the institution of dating, marriage, and love were very different. I’m going to relate culture and religion in the context of upbringing, because the way that you are brought up, directly affects how you perceive relationships. Even within an ethnic group, geographical culture differences can influence a relationship. In my opinion, the biggest factor in inter-cultural dating has been religion.
When I was like 16/17, I didn’t really know what casual dating was. I think the environment created in my school was conductive of serious relationships. Only in university did I understand what casual dating was because there was no pressure added by people watching you. My take on casual dating (as an outsider) is dating without the pressure of falling in love. I don’t have the mental space for that. I fall very quickly for people and very deeply. Casual dating for me has always felt like timepass.
“Personally, I have found that I reject some of the ‘dating traditions’ because I personally don’t agree with them (some are very dated). I think this mindset is also as a result of the (mostly western) culture that I grew up in. But actually, my parents are pretty traditional in their belief that I shouldn’t date whilst I’m still in education, despite the fact that I am an adult – ‘finish your studies first’. I tend to roll my eyes at this because I always think “why can’t I do both?” but it’s interesting because when I was younger, I followed their wish for fear of disappointing them, but now that I’m older I still follow their wish, but for my own reasons: wanting to love and appreciate my own company and being comfortable with myself, as well as career aspirations.
Wouldn’t this [marriage] just be viewed as the end goal in general, not just for Asians? I think it has quite a bit to do with tradition, and tradition can be comfortable. But being in 2020, I think marriage isn’t necessarily the only end goal.”
“I think subconsciously being told that finding a husband and getting married eventually is such an important thing in life made me rebel and want to go off the beaten track to get it out of my system. I left a really good relationship with an Indian boy who’s at med school now due to the need to ‘experience’ and not be tempted to marry him in the future. Subconsciously and consciously, I think my parents having an arranged marriage and having most relationships in my family being traditional (arranged at 25, engaged, marry at 26) has meant I do put pressure on myself to aim to see a future with a person.”
“Growing up in an Indian family in which everyone has had arranged marriages, and no one has successfully (even after trying) managed to break this tradition, the whole idea of having a relationship with someone is unfamiliar, scary and just feels weird. All I’d think about when talking to a guy is in the long run, if it does work, how do I tell my parents? Would he fit the criteria enough to allow a love marriage? So yes, because of the whole arranged marriage issue, you always think first, is this someone I could potentially take home to my family. And as much as I wish it wasn’t like that, it is. Anyone who doesn’t fit the criteria just seems like a bit of temporary fun.”
I feel like casual dating isn’t something that you see in our culture, like, people don’t just go on dates for the sake of meeting people. Maybe, it’s so ingrained in me that the only reason to date is to get married, or at least be in a stable long-term relationship that ends up in marriage. I don’t think I’ve been super open to the idea of dating somebody ‘just to see where it goes’. I have to know what their intentions are, to see if they match up with mine. I know what I want, so I need to see if they match up to that. The majority of men that I’ve met, not just brown guys, don’t really think that far into the future, or if they do, I haven’t met them yet! They can also get freaked out if you bring up the fact that there’s a potential future together, and they’ll say something like oh no we’re still just seeing each other.
In terms of a ‘stereotype’ – I’ve had people joke with me and be like “you don’t have to think of marrying every guy you meet” but I DO. I don’t really see the point in being with somebody I don’t see a future with. But when I bring this up with other people, who aren’t South Asian, they ask: “is it because it’s because of the whole arranged marriage thing, and how important marriages are in Indian culture?” They are important, but I don’t want how I think to be boiled down purely to the fact that marriages are important in my culture. It’s also a personal choice – I have lots of Indian friends who date casually. It’s wrong to say it’s a stereotype, when it’s a personal choice.
Ketki currently studies Classics and English Literature at King’s College London. She is the deputy editor-in-chief of Strand Magazine, KCL’s ‘Arts and Culture’ publication. She explores what "multi-cultural identity" looks like, in London and beyond, within her writing. She is the author of the exclusive digital column "Ketki & The City", which explores life at the intersection of Gen Z and diaspora.