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Alex Smyth

Swipe Left: How I’m learning to date while under pressure from my family to marry

Marriage is important to my Nigerian and Zimbabwean parents, but growing up, they never spoke to me about dating. And now I’m stuck.

07 Sep 2022

Recently, I watched the Nigerian comedy 40 and Single on Netflix. It’s about a successful woman who is turning 40 but, as the title suggests, is still single. On the show, her Nigerian mum pushes for her to get married, as all of her siblings are already married. I thought it was funny to see something so relatable on TV.

Marriage is a big deal in many African cultures – growing up, I often heard phrases like, ‘a woman’s body clock stops ticking at 30’. This mythical countdown puts so much pressure on women to find a partner and get married before reaching their thirties. But while my parents, who are from Nigeria and Zimbabwe, want me to get married, they never talked to me about dating when I was young. We didn’t have any, let alone healthy, conversations about romantic relationships. They didn’t give me any guidance, only to ‘leave boys alone’ because they are ‘no good’. My dad went as far as telling me that I was not allowed relationships until after I finished university.

‘Growing up, I often heard phrases like, ‘a woman’s body clock stops ticking at 30”

I spent years watching certain family members and friends rushing into marriage because of pressure from our family and community. This led to some of them picking the wrong spouse and even ending up in abusive relationships. Now I realise that, just like me, these relatives and friends didn’t receive any advice from their parents about dating as they grew up. What pains me most is that they haven’t been able to share their experiences with their parents because of fear of judgement and the blame that they would receive from them. Seeing these experiences makes me even more nervous of ending up in a similar situation to most of the women around me. 

Instead of my parents, I get my dating advice from movies and social media. Sitting on Twitter with a pen and paper, I take down tips on noticing red flags in my notepad. Watching TV, I try to understand how I would navigate a certain scene, screaming at unexpected moments from Nigerian Netflix and seeing my life reflected in characters on screen. I spent lockdown on Clubhouse listening to stories from women about their worst dating experiences on Hinge. The Twitter comments were hilarious, and I laughed along like a hyena. But after I left the conversations, I started to second-guess dating itself. I wondered whether dating was even right for me.

Pressure from my parents to get married and have children has affected my mental wellbeing. At times, it’s made me feel low about myself and question the decisions I’ve made – such as continuing my education and building my creative career. Being the oldest child, I am told that I need to ‘lead by example’ and am often compared to my peers who are getting married and settling down. I try my best not to let the pressure from my parents get to me – after all, I’m still young and working on myself.

‘My aunties tell me: “You’re a beautiful girl, you should have a boyfriend!” Where did all this energy suddenly come from?’

My friends play an important part in my love life as they are the people that I can turn to and receive advice from on navigating the dating world. We always support each other, trying our best to undo the trauma we have with intimate relationships, something that has been passed down to us from our parents. It does bring me some comfort to know that I am not the only person experiencing this and that my friends and other women in my community face similar pressures too.

When I’m with my family, I’m constantly ducking and diving the question, “Do you have a boyfriend?” If I say no, my aunties tell me: “You’re a beautiful girl, you should have a boyfriend!” Where did all this energy suddenly come from? When I was growing up, dating may as well have been a crime punishable in my household. The aunties who are now so intrigued about my love life, are the same ones that used to call my parents to snake on me when they saw me with a group of boys who were just my friends.

‘We need to normalise talking about dating in African households. It is a rite of passage and an important stage in our lives.’

As I’ve become older, I’ve come to realise that a lot of my elder family members didn’t get support from their own parents when it came to dating and, like my younger generation, they had to navigate the scene on their own. This silence around dating – coupled with intense pressure to marry young – is a generational curse that needs to be broken, instead of passed down. We need to normalise talking about dating – not just marriage – in African households. It is a rite of passage and an important stage in our lives. We need to be supported by our parents and be guided in making the right decisions when it comes to finding a life partner. When we suffer heartbreak we should be consoled by our parents, not shamed. 

Now, I recognise that it’s a blessing that older aunties and cousins in my family finally feel comfortable enough to talk about mine and their own love lives. When they ask me if I’m dating, they’re also passing along wisdom and support to me in their own ways. I know that if I need someone to talk to, I can go to them. Knowing that I am not alone gives me the confidence I need to allow myself to date – and, I hope, to break my family’s curse of suffering in silence.

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