I recently got out of my first serious, and first ever, relationship. Go on, laugh – at 18 years old, my attempt at dating was funny, like a toddler trying to drive. It’s cute, but at the end of the day, it just doesn’t work.
Growing up in an Indian household, dating was not spoken about. It was assumed that since I was a student, I wouldn’t even look at boys. My first priority was always my academics, and I followed that philosophy religiously. In a world where kindergarteners had boyfriends and high schoolers made out against the lockers, I clutched onto my textbooks like rocks. On the rare occasion that someone did ask me out, I always said no, unwilling to open a Pandora’s box of fears, questions, and disapproval from both myself and my parents. It was easier to just do as I was told.
But of course, I was a teenage brown girl growing up in a Western world, where dating is treated as an essential part of a well-rounded teen experience. So, of course, I made small transgressions. I quietly stared at cute boys, never daring to approach them, but secretly hoping they’d start a conversation. If I felt risky, I’d text my crush first, asking him a question about homework, with each response notification plastering a silly smile on my face. I wondered what it would be like to have my first kiss – that wonderful, magical moment glorified by countless pop songs and Disney TV shows. I imagined a life where I was one of those girls that all the boys chased after (ideally, Tina; realistically, Anjali).
So of course, when a cute, brown-haired white boy actually reciprocated the feelings I had for him, I was not prepared. I felt my two worlds colliding in a fit of giddiness and confusion.
Here’s what I wish someone told me before we dated:
1. Understand what a relationship means to you.
Here’s my question: What does it even mean to be in a relationship? It’s especially important to define this for yourself if you live in a household where even thinking about dating is seen as a cultural transgression. Maybe you think this is arbitrary, but how can you be ready to be in a relationship if you won’t even allow yourself to confront it as an idea?
2. Set boundaries for yourself and communicate these boundaries to your partner. Know that sometimes they won’t understand.
How much are you willing to let in this person emotionally? Physically? It might be fun to figure these out at the moment, but that could lead to you ultimately going too far and hurting yourself.
Now, make sure you tell these to your partner! It is essential that your partner understands what you are and are not comfortable with, especially if they grew up in a different household with a different value system and culture. You are not responsible for molding yourself to adhere to a culture that pushes you into a zone of panic. Maybe he won’t understand why it’s weird for you to bring him over for dinner with your family. Maybe you’ll hurt him if you keep the relationship hidden from certain family members. It’s up to both of you to navigate these cultural speed bumps together. If he’s worth it, he’ll accept you as you are.
3. Be friends first.
You don’t have to best friends before dating, but if you can, try to get to know them platonically before adding the expectations that come with a romantic relationship. Ask yourself, “Can I be myself around this person? Do I like them for who they are? Do I enjoy being with them and talking to them?” And if you go on to date, continue getting to know them. It’s easy to take your partner for granted once you have them and stop appreciating how amazing they are.
4. Be careful about getting caught up in the fantasy.
The movies, books, and media we consume tend to idolize relationship by telling us that if someone else is there to hold your hand and call you pretty, you’ll have 20/20 vision, your acne will clear, and you’ll lose 10 pounds. Every person has their flaws, and as a result, every relationship is flawed. It’s great to have a companion and someone who you know will always be there for you, but be wary of depending on someone else for your own happiness. It’ll cause you to lose a sense of your own self as an individual and to cling on to them even though you know they’re not right for you.
5. Listen to your feelings, especially the bad ones.
When I was with my ex, there were countless moments when I was drowning in an overwhelming feeling of guilt. I would get mad at myself for feeling that way. Other teenagers were dating and they all seemed to have it so easy (including him)! Looking back, I wish I realized that my guilt was a sign that I needed to stop and understand that certain behaviors within the relationship were making me uncomfortable. Allow your emotions to guide you through the relationship and realize each feeling is a powerful indicator.
6. Realize it’s okay not to know.
I am by no means a dating expert and, honestly, I don’t hope to be. Embrace the uncertainty and ups and downs that your decisions bring and realize every experience teaches valuable lessons. Go in with a clear and open mind. You’ve got this!