The Internet Deems Hiding a Relationship From Family to Be a Red Flag – But for Indians, It’s Complicated
Not introducing one’s significant other to one’s friends and family is a pretty obvious red flag in the realm of dating, at least according to the internet’s collective wisdom. Especially so, in the context of relationships where the parties — or, at least, one of the parties — have envisioned a future together. The phenomenon has a name, too: stashing. However, before deciding to end a relationship with someone simply because they’re refusing to extend an invitation for chai-samosa with the prospective in-laws, it might be worth considering whether one might have reasonable excuses for keeping their love life on the down-low, in the Indian milieu. We live in a country where love is celebrated in folklore and mythological tales; among humans, it is frowned upon — if not met with violence, that is. Honor killings, too, are jarringly commonplace in India. It isn’t surprising, then, that the generally awkward dance of deciding when to let the cat out of the bag and introduce one’s partner to one’s loved ones, can feel like juggling flaming torches while tap-dancing on a tightrope.
“[S]ometimes it might be wise to wait before announcing a new relationship. Maybe you don’t want to hurt a previous partner? Maybe you’ve had many in the past, and want your friends to take this one seriously?” explains The Guardian. But, in India, the motivations behind stashing could be particularly intricate.
In 2 States (2014), when the protagonists do introduce their partners to their parents, the theatrics that follows force them to briefly call it quits on their relationship. Bang Baaja Baaraat (2015), too, told a similar story. “[The couple] decide[s] to get hitched… Until their respective parents arrive at the wedding venue, and the chaos begins,” notes India Today, describing the limited series. “Both set[s] of parents… are somewhat disgusted and surprised by each others’ lifestyles. [The groom’s family] surprise[s] and gross[es] out [the bride’s] parents by sprinkling cow urine on her, [while her] parents and their dysfunctional marriage fills [the guy’s] parents with horror!”
Given that India is a diverse country, the lack of cultural sensitivity and acceptance can thus play a role in one’s decision to stash — at least, until one is either able to inculcate respect for varied cultural backgrounds in the minds of their family members, or devises a way to navigate conflicting expectations arising from cultural or religious disparities.
Then, there was 14 Phere (2021), whose plot was a comedy of errors revolving around an inter-caste couple longing to tie the knot, but jumping through a series of elaborate hoops in a bid to keep part of their partners’ identities hidden from their families. The critically acclaimed Sairat (2016) — a romantic tragedy — depicts a couple experiencing the same anxieties. Except, here, there’s no happy ending to their romance. In 14 Phere and Sairat, it’s the couples’ lives that were threatened; in 2 States and Bang Baaja Baraat, it’s the relationship itself that is imperiled — highlighting how the choice to stash can be driven by a compulsion to safeguard one’s emotional wellbeing.
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What each one of these fictional plots describes, then, are fallouts that many millennials dread. This isn’t to say that stashing should raise eyebrows and set off alarm bells faster than one can spell m-a-r-r-i-a-g-e; instead, it suggests an exploration of the cultural quirks and personal dilemmas that might get in the way of the good old meet-my-partner drama.
“One interfaith couple told me of the hounding they had faced from the woman’s family, and chose ultimately not to get a marriage license for fear of their names being made public in the local government office,” notes an article on BBC, exploring the million stigmas that couples in relationships that don’t fit into the country’s traditionally conventional norms surrounding marriage face. Indian parenting styles are, after all, infamous for expressing care through bullying one’s kids, and employing the strategy of guilt-tripping to induce obedience to one’s family.
“Ask yourself why your partner doesn’t seem to want to make a commitment to you by keeping you apart from their family and friends… Are they hiding something from you? If you were looking for a meaningful relationship with this person, is there much prospect if they won’t include you in their life?” advises Heather Garbutt, a relationship psychotherapist. But explaining that stashing might not necessarily indicate malevolence or speak to perverse objectives, Garbutt adds: “They may actually be afraid of specific friends or family members.” In other words, while stashing does often point to red flags like lack of commitment and accountability — birthing trust issues, in the process — it is pertinent to consider the individual circumstances of one’s romantic partner.
It is a well-known fact that many Indian adults famous end up leading double lives — across diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and regions, many hide their true preferences, experiences, and sometimes, even daily lives, from their families — to avoid the consequences of their families disapproving of their ways of life. “My dad practically fainted when I told him [of my relationship with a white, non-Muslim man]. Both of my parents were deeply disappointed and ashamed and told me I had to give him up,” says Shamima, who lied to her family for seven years, fearing they would disown her for choosing to love the man she did. Given that her parents dragged her to a religious place to “cleanse” her and help her “find her way” while threatening to send her back to India, her fears weren’t unfounded in the least.
However, there is also a host of first-hand accounts online from Indians who have been stashed by their partners while being simultaneously strung on with the assurance of marriage — only for the stasher to end up marrying a person their families approve of. “I am from a different caste and he is from an orthodox family… His mom asked him to die rather than marr[y] me,” wrote a woman.
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When moralities rooted in caste, class, and religious boundaries become the cause of violent backlash, they take the form of exercises in toxic masculinity, too. Describing an incident where this is precisely what happened, Deepa Pawar noted in Behan Box, “A young man in love with a Dalit woman was scolded by his family for crossing the caste barrier, and allegations were made about her ‘character’, ‘motives’, ‘upbringing’, ‘values’ and so on… These discussions took place publicly, in front of their friends and family, in the same village where the young woman’s family lived. This woman is the daughter of a single mother, a migrant Dalit woman living in a rented accommodation.”
Online accounts appear to suggest that women — almost disproportionately — are at risk of being stashed in cis-heterosexual relationships. What the accounts rarely underline, though, is how women in cis-heterosexual relationships are also the ones that bear the brunt of society’s bigotry against inter-caste, inter-class, and inter-faith unions. Alluding to the incident of the Dalit woman, Pawar adds, “The sympathies of the entire village lay with the man, and after a while even started blaming the young woman for the decisions that they had taken as a couple. The character assassination derailed her education and career preparation — she is training to enter the police force which is a male-dominated profession. The young man, after a while, continued to perform and thrive in his friendships, education, and social life… Relationships are also a site of power where inequalities between the two partners play out — especially when the male, already wielding skewed gender power, is from a dominant caste.”
What follows the disclosure of a romantic relationship could be significantly damaging for individuals from the queer community, too. Disclosing one’s queer relationship could be met with the kind of negativity that, at best, entails being disowned from the family; at worst, it can lead to forced heterosexual marriages, conversion therapy, and as always, honor killing.
Indeed, stashing might, then, be the only option one has to live the life one wants to, without exposing themselves — and their partner — to forced separation, emotional harassment, or worse but not inconceivable, lynching. But it’s not an excuse to not openly communicate with one’s partner about the reason they’re being stashed, thus denying them the opportunity to make an informed decision about the fate of the relationship. As Garbutt suggests: “[Y]ou have to ask yourself whether you want to be in a relationship with somebody in this situation… Remember that your relationship is not a project and a partner is not somebody to be rescued. If you’re looking for something rich and fulfilling, you might need to find somebody you can depend on more. If there are too many complications to overcome, they might just not be the one for you.”
Refusing one’s partner the choice to make that decision — simply because one’s personal circumstances prevent one from exercising their own free will when it comes to their life — is, after all, selfish. Open communication, understanding, and compromise are key, here.