Sex Before Marriage? I Should Have Lied

If your mum is anything like my mum (strong-willed, dramatic and South Asian), there are some things you should probably hide until the time is right.

Unfortunately for me this realisation has come a little late.

L and I live together now (we’re not married) and there’s no point in hiding the obvious. But back when I was still living with my parents, I could have spared both mum and I two years of feeling hurt and betrayed if I’d just told one tiny white lie. “No mum, we’ve never slept together”.

I’ve always been honest with my mum. In the early days of my relationship with L, I was keen to share, hoping my openness would warm her up to the idea of us being together (in case you’re wondering, this strategy didn’t work). Clearly there were things I would never have told her. Usually these were things that left me feeling dirty and low myself – having a one night stand, for instance.

But making love to the guy I love, and having such intense feelings for each other the whole thing felt almost sacred? That to me was something to cherish. It was certainly not something I would ever deny when asked about, as if we were naughty kids doing the wrong thing. To hide it would have felt belittling and dismissive of our love.

Which is why, when I told mum the truth, and she hit the wall and basically implied I was a whore, I came out of the battle badly badly bruised. Yes, she apologised for saying it (after I didn’t speak to her for a couple of days), and now that L and I live together the issue barely rates a mention. All mum has said is, “Make sure you don’t get pregnant”. But the memory still stings. It was after this episode that I clammed up about L…avoided mentioning his name, stopped hinting that he and mum should try to get to know one another better. All I could think about was how my friends’ mums welcomed their partners with open arms (they didn’t all do this, but I wasn’t looking out for such reality checks at the time). And how my own mother, in contrast, had not only refused to be happy about my relationship, but had actually shot down my self esteem and selfishly turned the whole special thing around to make it be about her. How could she insist that my making love to my own partner is the ultimate betrayal? How is that logical? Or loving? Or anything else a mother is supposed to be?

And it’s not just with me either. She once found a packet of empty condoms in my brother’s room and went wild at him, replaying the betrayal script once again. (My suggestion that at least it was empty and at least he’s being responsible didn’t quite go down as I had intended).

It was after the fight with me that mum became explicitly anti-L. On some warped level of reality, she obviously did recognise the seriousness of the relationship, because she realised at this point that we were in it for the long haul. But the whole thing also allowed her to crystallise her objections, to turn our relationship into – out of the all the special things that it is – a personal attack against her!

I do understand that my mum has sacrificed a lot for her children. And I do understand that it must hurt so much when your kids act in an almost alien way, completely disregarding some of your most dear values. Just as it hurts me deeply when I feel mum has betrayed some of my dearest values – like the assumption that she would be happy for me when I found my long-term partner.

But hey, at least I was honest.

I wonder how mum would’ve reacted if I had approached my relationship with L the way most of my cousins have approach their relationships: by hiding them from their parents until they’re ready to get married or move in together. And then, in the case of monocultural relationships, asking for their parent’s permission and hey pronto, turning it into the perfect (self) arranged marriage. Everyone’s happy and no one’s asking questions.

I never grew up knowing my cousins or how they interacted with their South Asian parents (maybe if I had I’d be better equipped to handle my mum). But I do wonder: doesn’t it hurt to hide your relationship from your parents? Doesn’t it feel demeaning of your love? Maybe these cousins understand better than me what their parents can and cannot handle. And maybe they know better than to feel hurt by lack of parental understanding.

I’m not so sure sharpened cultural awareness would have made me less honest (and therefore more sensitive) with mum back then. There was definitely a stubborn assumption and expectation from my part that she would react just like all the other mothers I knew. Considering all these other mums were white, this was hardly a fair expectation and I don’t think it’s entirely mum’s fault I came out of it feeling so hurt and resentful. And anyway I’ve learnt my lesson. With cultural understanding has come a much less militant attitude towards honesty.

33 Comments

Filed under Arranged Marriage, Cultural Difference, Family Acceptance, Parents, South Asian Marriage

33 responses to “Sex Before Marriage? I Should Have Lied

  1. We lied our asses off about sex AND living arrangements to all parental figures, even to point-blank questions. It was one of the reasons I wanted to get married sooner rather than later — plus I was constantly paranoid about a pregnancy (still wouldn’t be convenient timing, but at least wouldn’t spark fury raining down on our heads). The process was really hard in a variety of ways, and I think it would’ve been easier later, when I had resolved some identity issues with religion and started working out a balance with Indian and American culture, and when A and I had come to a better balance of power in the relationship — but I guess who’s to say those things would’ve happened without the terrible wedding process? But, we didn’t want to deal with everyone’s disappointment and anger, so we lied to almost everyone, sometimes just to keep the story consistent, and we paid rent on my cheap hole of an apartment for a year and a half after I had clearly stopped living in it. I hated lying, changing all kinds of little details to cover up how our daily lives actually ran, and I wasn’t particularly good at it, but everyone wanted to believe we weren’t living together so they let it be the official story. Part of me really wishes we had had the strength to take a stand for the lifestyle we wanted, and I’ve insisted that if any of the cousins get caught living with someone (or, it just occurred to me, choose to announce it openly!), we’ll out ourselves in their defense. A is very anxious about this possibility but said yes in theory. (I have to admit, it’s most likely to happen with a cousin I particularly like, and/or after we’ve produced a grandchild to be our shield.)

    • Maybe now that you’re married outing yourselves wouldn’t be such a big scandal? That said, a grandchild is definitely the ultimate shield 🙂
      I can really related to that tension between not wanting to deal with everybody’s disappointments (especially when they’re working you hard to deal with them in other ways!) but at the same time creating elaborate cover-ups to maintain the myth.
      I would totally lie about living together to the extended family if they ever asked me. Fortunately (…?) I’m not close enough to them for this to even be a possibility. But I was never going to lie to my mum when she asked point-blank. It’s stubborn, I know, but I really did expect her to have a more relaxed, accepting and understanding reaction. A lot of this stubborness comes from my firm expectation that she should just accept L, as the partner her child has chosen, and at a deeper level accept the fact that she has no right to undermine the way I live my life and the future I make for myself. Probably the demand that she accept the whole sex before marriage thing was the harshest demand of all…I think I undermined myself, as it pushed her the other way.

      • Trust me, A still has serious anxiety about what his parents know and don’t know, even though we’ve been married a year and are on very good terms with them. He didn’t want to be open about our mini-honeymoon after the courthouse wedding, because some family members don’t consider that being truly married until you’ve had the ceremony with the priest, and he was particular about putting the hotel on my credit card so his parents wouldn’t see the charge on the shared card.

        That being said, it would of course not be as big of a scandal now, and it would at least take some heat off whoever’s been caught (it would take off more heat if A had married an Indian, of course, but oh well, I think I’m considered a good enough gori wife).

      • I can imagine 🙂
        I guess it’s not helped by the fact that people love a (sex) scandal!
        Not sure what A’s family is like, but in my family, such ‘outing’ would result in a lot of painful teasing and sexual innuendo from Uncles and Aunts, not so much disappointment. How they respond to their own kids being outed though, is a different issue altogether.

      • I have a hard time imagining anything but shock and disapproval from anyone above 40 in A’s family! Which I’m actually more ok with than becoming a target for awkward comments…

  2. kay

    oh taswin, I can so relate. Even now that I’ve lived with Kartik for three years (three whole years!), my mom still thinks I’m a virgin. I just avoid all topics pertaining to sex and so does she so it works out fine in that aspect.

    I can’t help but think that South Asian parents want a partner who ‘looks good on paper’ for their children. I’ve lucked out that my fiance’s parents are not like that–considering the fact that I’m already 26 and only a measly arts major with an undergrad degree. My own parents, on the other hand, are definitely-let’s say-relieved that my fiance’s a more ‘grounded’ MBA (though to be honest, they would have preferred a good engineer or doctor).

    I don’t know what L does for a living or what he majored in in University, but perhaps your mom is so strongly against him because she does not feel that he looks good on paper? Would she act differently if he was a doctor? (for example)

    • Hehe your mum sounds classic 🙂
      My mum (not so much my dad) is definitely into a partner who looks good on paper. L has pretty impressive university qualifications but mum often tries to use the fact that he doesn’t look that great on paper in other ways (in her view) to express her objections.
      I’m sure she would act differently if he was a doctor. That said, race is still one of her objections, though she tries to give different excuses. Being a doctor don’t change the colour of your skin!

      • This ‘looks good on paper’ is certainly big big big on south asian parents’ lists. Even when it came to my hubby, the biggest reason, why I didn’t face much opposition at home, was the fact that my hubby was already an MBA+engineer, and had a cushy job at a leading IT company in India. For his parents, I assume, the fact that I had an MBA as well, did work the magic, coz they didn’t create any drama either .
        I think it all goes to the fact that Indian parents look at marriage as a stabilizing factor in their kids’ lives, part of settling down, so having a good education and job definately adds points in your tally .

  3. I wanted to react on your comment, but I wrote so much I made a blog post of it. You should check my blog for more context.

    When we were in Nepal, my husband and I planned a trip to Pokhara. Just the two of us. However his father did not like it and forced my sister in law to join us. She got instructions not to leave us alone in any case. And if we would take separate rooms in the hotel. She and I should share a room and my husband should take the other room. 🙂

    I had a huge discussion with my husband. Because this trip would be our time alone and I really needed that. However, at the end his sister joined us. Always obey father’s wish. I know I joked about it at the end with my husband and told him: ” Who is he going to send with us to lay between us in bed when we are going back to Europe?” I think he must be terrified that we would have sex together. 🙂

  4. intercultured

    From my experience controlling one’s sexual life is a domain of both Indian mother and extremely-conservative-catholic-european mother. Both think they know better.

    A. and I never had a problem with saying that “we live like any other married couple” – both moms got the message and both flipped out, but who cares? It’s not their business after all.

    It didn’t stop my mom from preparing two separate beds when we visit my parents, it also didn’t stop A.’s mom from trying to break our relationship.

    If our mothers cannot respect our choices, why should we respect their views? My mom is not on campaign against A. but I can tell you, we became way apart since I’m in a relationship. But it was my mom’s choice. I’m not gonna apologize for the fact that I have a life of my own. With A. the same story. We took it as an inevitable result of making adult decisions.

    • Exactly! Adults make their own decisions and shouldn’t have to apologise for their choices. If I had my time again – full knowing that being honest about our living arrangements would make mum and I grow apart – I still wouldn’t lie. Having to hide things slots you right back in to that role of naughty kid needing some discipline and intervention (great news for interfering Indian/conservative catholic mothers!). It’s probably childish of me, but I’ve used this issue to scream “I’m an adult. Please respect that”. (I’m sure a ‘real’ adult wouldn’t need to scream this!)

  5. Sex, is a very touchy subject (pardon the pun !) in many cultures, not just South Asian, IMO. Most religions talk about abstinence, and sex after marriage, we just hold on to it with dear life.
    I think there’s some kind of paranoia, usually going on with south asians’ regarding protecting what’s sacred in their culture, and what it’ll mean if they don’t, etc….
    I never had a live-in relationship with my hubby, but similar to it, which means that my nights were spent at my parents’ home (in the same city), but during the day we’d be at our grad school + his apartment ( he lived in a rental apt all by himself) , and lemme tell you, a lot went on in that apt…a whole lot. Did my parents know about it ? Hell NO !!!!
    To this day my mom, thinks that I might’ve been a virgin when I got married . I say, let her, I don’t wanna out myself, and risk her having an heart attack so to speak . It doesn’t even matter to me, what she thinks/thought. I did what I wanted, and that’s that .

    BTW, nice blog, can’t wait to read more of it !

    • Hi Anjali, thanks for passing by and sharing your experiences!
      You make a really good point, about doing what you like and letting the family think what they want (because a lot of families, no matter what their culture, will WANT to believe something even if they know the opposite is true).
      I feel like in a lot of South Asian cultures, it’s seen as totally the norm to hide this kind of stuff from your parents. And because it’s the norm, it doesn’t make you feel like a child when you’re doing it. In the west however, having to hide such a basic fact of human life feels…well, just really wrong.
      Since that big fight with my mum I’ve always felt like I probably shouldn’t have expected her to react like a white mum would. At the time, I hadn’t explicitly thought about her reacting like a western or South Asian mum, it was more along the lines of: this is how other (loving) mothers behave, if my mum loves me she’ll behave in the same way. But reading your first comment on Intercultured’s blog really confirmed it for me: Of course I shouldn’t expect her to react like a western mum!!…Though of course I still do! Unfortunately my emotional side trumps my rational side on this issue.
      So thanks again for great food for thought in a whole lot of ways 🙂

      • You are right about hiding such stuff being norm in south asian culture, and most people hide these things just to avoid all the drama and backlash, that comes from revealing such details. And you’re right about it making you feel a bit childish or like a criminal even, always on the lookout, looking over your shoulder to make sure you aren’t caught, but that said I will say this, I actually kinda enjoyed that time a little bit. there’s definitely a little fun in being secretive about your relationship.
        About your mom reacting the way she did, and not like a westerner, you know what I wrote on the other blog was more about Indian parents from india, I feel that parents who choose to raise kids outside of India, should open up to the possibility that their kids will think and act like any other kids in that country, somehow Indian parents abroad are in denial mode most of the time, about their kids, they think if they just pressure them enough, the kids will tow the line, and be a good Indian kid.
        About your expectations from your mother, I guess we all do that, we too are many a times in denial about what are parents are in reality versus what we want them to be.

      • I also think that when you migrate, you should open up to the possibility of your kids doing things in a different way. I just find it so hard to get some balance in this view – it swings from hardline “You moved here and if you don’t like it, go back to where you came from, I don’t have to explain anything to you”, to “Ok I totally understand, it’s hard to change the values you hold most dearly, so I’ll just hide it all from you”. Neither perspective gives much room for compromise or to have an honest discussion about the true state of your relationship (and your life!).

        What’s hard to swallow about my mum’s reactions is that in most things she has reacted like a western parent would – even when it comes to finding a partner my parents told me as a teen that since they migrated, they no longer expect me to marry a South Asian. So she’s always seemed to be quite reasonable and realistic about it (until it actually happened, that is!), which makes her irrational reaction seem even more irrational. That said I do kind of understand how hard it is to shed ingrained beliefs, even if you consciously think you have. I am in theory a firm believer in respecting cultural differences. But if I had a daughter and brought her up in India and she decided to marry into a strict family and live in purdah for the rest of her life? Bet any amount of money my personal and professional commitment to cultural relativism would be out the window and I would freak and try to convince her she was choosing an inferior, more closeted lifestyle.
        In my mum’s case though it’s not just about culture shock, it’s more about using the moral blame game that comes with the whole sex before marriage thing to express her objections to L. And she objects to him because of the colour of his skin (in her view a black person will face discrimination – !! – and therefore I’m going to have a bad life)…If I was with a South Asian or Aussie guy, there may have been drama, but not this big. Maybe that’s one reason why I’m so insistent on the truth…it’s kind of this warped way to fight my mum’s racism (in addition to confronting her directly about it).
        Hmmm…Now that I’ve written it that strategy seems a bit silly…!

  6. americanepali

    I too, hear where you are coming from. P and I have been living together for 5 years now, and in college we lived together in the summers as well. I think while we were in college my family chose to ignore where I was living, and never brought it up. However after graduation and moving in with him full time, they couldn’t really ignore it, but they certainly try. In 5 years none of my extended family has come to visit our apartment (with the exception of my mom, dad and sisters– who don’t seem to care that we live together) I think because they don’t want THEIR kids to see me “living in sin” and “being a bad Catholic”

    • Thanks for sharing!
      It’s interesting to read all the responses here where families have known the truth but chosen to ignore it. Maybe Nepali Vs Europe’s point about having an openly secret relationship is one way for families to actually accept the truth (yeah, my kids are gonna have sex because…they’re human) while buffering themselves from the confrontation and moral ambiguity of the situation. Lying (or at least hiding the truth) is the lesser of the two sins.

  7. lkafle

    It is so natural why lie ?

    • It’s all cost/benefit analysis — for us, the cost of lying (feeling uncomfortable and distant, feeling like the seriousness and maturity of our decision was invalidated by being “unacceptable”) was less than the cost of being honest (judgment, disappointment, and fury, especially in the context of my family being disappointed he’s [I’m] not Christian and his family being disappointed I’m not Indian — feeling like we’d give them one more reason to say mixed relationships are bad or nonChristians have no values).

      If I had it all to do again…I would seriously consider just making our families deal with us living together with intentions to marry around 2011-2013. Another cost of lying was that we hurried getting married (met 11/07, engaged 7/09, wedding 7/10). I’m completely happy to be married now, but I think it would have gone a LOT smoother later…but, of course, we’d have had to deal with more stress around openly cohabitating. Blarg.

      • Yeah the teasing can be pretty painful!! But my extended family seems to excel in that kind of thing (I think that’s why I’ve avoided really having anything to do with them…)
        I definitely understanding hiding the truth for sake of both families; also for the sake of smoothing the bumps of the intercultural factor when it comes to A’s family. I am sure if it had been L’s mum who suddenly demanded that we get married before moving in together, I would have agreed. I seem to be more comfortable with cultural compromise when it comes to L. But I’m just as much in a relationship with my mum and yet I’m too stubborn to compromise. Maybe it’s a sullen adolescent thing that never goes away. Or maybe I know that I don’t have to compromise with mum for acceptance…I’m her daughter, she has no choice but to accept me (even if she doesn’t accept my partner). DILs (and son in laws) don’t have the luxury of assuming acceptance.

  8. lkafle

    Its the basic fact of life , Accepting or not. But this cultural shock should be changing

  9. Pingback: The Aftermath Part One: From Smooth Sailing to Choppy Waters | taswin12

  10. Bharatiya Nari

    So not only homosexuality, but also heterosexuality is still in the closet in South Asia?

    Consider that in a joint family household the married couples also have to “hide” and “sneak” to have sex and keep it really, really, really quiet. Which begs the question: do they even orgasm at all?

  11. lkafle

    ahhaha @bahratiya Nari commonly nepal india pak bangla have such hide and seek situation and its worses in married families, liberalization in fulfilling basic human need is lacking due to social stigma …

    • I’ve always wondered about this…

      So here’s what I learnt at uni (in a nutshell): South Asian households are like this because a fond, loving sexual bond between a husband and wife threatens the patriarchal authority of the father and threatens the fraternal bond (father to his sons and grandsons) which ensures that the family (i.e. the patrilineage) stays together and doesn’t break up. A new bride in particular has to be radically controlled because she is the dangerous new element who threatens the patriline with all her sexual allure…you know, if she gets enough emotional hold on her groom, she might even – gasp – convince their darling son to move out and set up his own household (except they can’t do without her sexual prowess because that’s what’s going to give them more sons).
      Also, the husband’s mother, the matriarch of the house, could get pretty jealous if there’s a pretty young woman stealing the affections of her son. But I guess that’s an MIL/DIL dynamic almost everywhere.

      What do you think? Academic BS or does it have some truth (not necessarily the whole truth!)? I’ve spent some time in South Asia, living with family for a few months, but sex was definitely one thing that just kind of … didn’t seem to happen and/or wasn’t talked about (or if was referred to it was always as joking innuendo, especially in wedding contexts. People just didn’t seem able to talk about it without a smirk on their face). I did a fair bit of travelling with people my age, and was pretty surprised that young people never talked about sex, even amongst close friends (as in, when they didn’t have their tyrannical MILs standing over them). It’s a pretty big topic of conversation between my girlfriends here – not in a distasteful or boastful way, but because it’s a important, intimate part of human relationships.

      • Bharatiya Nari

        What they taught you at Uni is correct. How did the South Asian students in the class respond? I usually find other South Asians (besides myself, of course – ahem, cough), to be quite defensive when their culture is being analysed, even if amongst ourselves we say the very same things.

      • I don’t know if it is due to the South Asian in me but that “because” makes me uncomfortable. Sure, south Asian societies are patriarchal. Sure, a loving bond between a husband and wife weakens patrilineage. However, almost all societies are patriarchal. But not all societies function in this manner. Correlation: sure. Causation: not really convinced.

      • Yeah I agree it’s more correlation than causation.
        I think I was the only South Asian in the class…and I don’t really consider it to be my culture so wasn’t offended. Plus we were discussing various aspects of gender in South Asia, it wasn’t meant as criticism so much as an attempt to understand the various cultural and social factors at play.

      • Sex/Intimacy and South Asia: I shall share an anecdote.
        I was with my (extended) family in rural Nepal for a cousin’s wedding. After the wedding was over, my aunt (in her mid 30s) and her husband (uncle) were going to go visit her in laws/his parents before she went back to Kathmandu and the uncle went back to where he was living for work [they were long distancing because of his work]. The uncle asked me if I wanted to come along and was fairly persistence that I should go along with them to see his part of the country. I thought, why not, as I had never been there before and it was only for one night.
        When we got there, the arrangement for that night was that I sleep with my aunt. I tried to wriggle out of it and said I would be fine by myself in the other room but they would not hear any of it. They had not gotten much time (and no alone time) together at the wedding and they were going to be separated soon (and were not going to see each other for at least a month). I felt so guilty and terrible because I feel like I stole away what could have been some precious moments for them. I still feel bad when I think about it. [Having said that, that is how I felt. They made me feel thoroughly welcome and not at all like they did not want me there.]
        Was the onus on me to (somehow) foresee that situation and decline the offer? I have never talked about it with anybody, because, as you say, no one really talks about such stuff.

  12. Bharatiya Nari

    The onus is not on you. I’m beginning to think that we South Asians are just not a “sensual people”. I mean, where else on the planet would a grown neice be expected to sleep with her aunt …. and WHY?

  13. lkafle

    hahahhaa so true

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