Healing from a breakup in a South Asian household – when your parents know nothing about it

Illustration by Javie Huxley

As I sat down to start writing this, my mum came into my room. Recently she’s been a bit on edge about me. She sat down and asked “Is everything ok?” (in Punjabi, of course). I told her yes, but she wouldn’t let it go. “You’re very emotional, and I worry about that.” And, even though I’m 20 years old and, little does she know it’s far too late, she finally had the sex talk with me. 

It was all “you need to protect your dignity” and “it’s disgusting what white people do with each other naked, before marriage, with multiple people. At your age there’s no such thing as love, only lust.” I nodded along, agreeing with her. 

If you’re Indian, South Asian or just have conservative parents, you’ll know exactly what I mean by the unspoken rules: no sex, love, dating or relationships before marriage. And you must marry a good Indian boy belonging to the same caste as you because you always carry the burden of your family’s dignity. 

My mum also stayed to tell me the story of her white co-worker who just took four weeks off to help comfort her heartbroken daughter. She had been dating a guy for a year and he dumped her. “All boys are like this at your age. Do not trust anyone.”

A few months ago, I got my heart broken. I had been dating a boy from uni that I really cared about, but he was moving the next academic year. So we mutually decided to end things because the distance wouldn’t work for us. He was white, which is another level of forbidden in our family (ironic, considering much of my extended family is mixed-race but my parents have their own rules) – like I said, “good Indian boy” is the goal. So the entire time I was with him, I had to fabricate some elaborate lie about where I was that evening to my parents: “My department’s hosting an undergraduate dinner,” or “there’s an end of term party, all the staff will be there supervising us,” or simply, “I’m staying late in the library tonight.” When you’re brown and your family’s conservative, you learn to lie; you have to create a double life.

“You have to stop yourself from getting emotional because your parents are sitting just a few feet away on the sofa. You grow tired of trying to explain why you spend so much time alone in your room”

When things ended with the boy, I was heartbroken. And dealing with being heartbroken, while living at home with your very conservative family, who don’t even know why you’re sad, is tough. It’s an experience filled with moments like crying your heart out to your close friends, sneaking ice cream up to your room late at night and creating precisely 5392 new playlists to help you move on. There are times when you have to stop yourself from getting emotional because your parents are sitting just a few feet away on the sofa. You grow tired of trying to explain why you spend so much time alone in your room. 

It’s frustrating because many of my white friends and those with less conservative parents can move forward with the understanding, wisdom and support of their parents. They don’t have to conceal their hurt from the very people that brought them into this world and, honestly, I wish I could do the same.  

However, it is possible, and you do learn to move on, it’s just a bit more complicated.

While keeping a relationship secret from your parents is hard, concealing your heartbreak is no easier. My mum mostly knows when something’s up. I don’t know how she does it, but her timing is impeccable. Even so, keeping the secret is crucial, especially if, like in my case, you have no way of predicting what would happen if your family found out. You have to act like nothing’s wrong when you’re home. And if you do slip up and they see you upset, you need an alibi: “I’ve got a tough assignment that’s making me stressed about my studies.” Any reassurance I was focused on work was what they were looking for in most cases.

“While keeping a relationship secret from your parents is hard, concealing your heartbreak is no easier”

Your parents are your parents. They’re not your best mates. You don’t have to tell them (or anyone, for that matter) everything. It’s a tough deal when we’re raised with the values that there should be no secrets within family. But as long as you’re happy and comfortable with the decisions you’re making in your life, you don’t have to tell them everything if you don’t want to, or can’t. Instead, find your healing from other sources: lean on your close friends for emotional support, read books (I’d recommend Rising Strong, a book about being vulnerable by Brené Brown), read articles, and watch videos about moving on (I’d recommend Guy Winch’s TED talk, ‘How to fix a broken heart’). You will get through it, it just takes time.

During the process of moving on, it’s hard to see why you’d put yourself through a secret relationship, or a secret breakup, again. You felt guilty all the time. You were lying constantly. You were living a double life. It’s just easier not to bother, right? That’s what I thought at first too, but I’m not so sure now. What’s even harder is feeling trapped and suffocated by impossible expectations and not living your life as authentically as you can. If, while you live at home or while you’re young, you have to tell some lies to gain a sense of freedom and feel like yourself, it can be worth it. I’ve always felt that even if I do make mistakes sometimes, I’d rather they be my own than to have to blame someone else for them. So keep going if it makes you happy. Persevere young brown girls, you will make it through. 

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