My formative years were abundant with older women who complained about their partners over tea. Venting and comparing one another’s marriages and children were the usual conversational fare of the adults, whether my mom and I were at Grandma’s house, or home with my mom on a long phone call.
Mostly ignored and on my own, I often wondered why my mother and her friends or relatives stayed with male specimens so undesirable and rife with fault. Marriage seemed a punishing obligation for women. Men were apparently demanding, unsupportive, inconsiderate, selfish, and often absent.
But men were also necessary and tolerated because that was just how they were. According to Mom & Co., any specimens to the contrary were just exceptions to the rule — and easily lost to other attractive women. My mom and her cohort were constantly worrying about cheating husbands.
I didn’t know these adult conversations were inappropriate and toxic to the younger me—I hardly needed to hear the resentful insecurities of women struggling with internalized misogyny, learned helplessness, and emotionally unavailable or abusive partners.
In this environment, my young mind rationalized that I would need to be 10/10 attractive, seductive, sophisticated, wily, and above criticism to get and keep “a good man”. If that was impossible, I figured singlehood was better than settling the way my female relatives had.
Alas, heteronormative romantic fantasies took hold in my teens. Friends were pairing up and my own loneliness started to sting. My mother’s anxiety rose to a perpetual panic. I was looking too closely at boys, I was too young to date, and men were only after “one thing”. (I don’t think I ever heard my mother use the word “sex”.)
We were not even religious, but the way she would tsk or shame me if I looked at sleeveless shirts or short skirts became painful. I learned to just keep my shopping and purchases secret. It also “helped” that my father, a narcissist and misogynist, was constantly loud and critical about women who spent too much or too little time on their appearance.
It all changed when I got the opportunity to attend university half a world away from my parents at age 20. To their eyes, I probably went wild there. I actually kept my grades top tier. I also kept my schedule and social life completely hidden from them.
I knew none of the details would make them happy — especially how I was desperate for love and a serious relationship. I hung out with rule-breakers: LGBTQ+ and people having premarital sex. My college life overseas was much like making sausage — I didn’t want the biggest critics in my life to know how I was going about it.
Call this the Asian adult child’s dilemma: Not supposed to date and get distracted from school/work, but still expected to somehow partner, marry, and produce grandchildren.
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The burden lay heavy on me. Even though the expectation is not voiced, parental approval was so lacking and the shame for being a burden and disappointment so profound, a part of me kept trying to do whatever I thought would please my parents.
But I had also long cut myself off from my emotional needs and couldn’t name what I was feeling at any time except anger at my mother’s ridiculous expectation that I remain virginal, and both my parents’ worldview that all men and relationships were shit.
How was anyone supposed to reconcile all the messaging and conditioning I’d received since I was a child, and was still receiving in my teens, twenties, and thirties? These were the attitudes that had been planted in me:
- A woman who’d lost her virginity was “used” and unattractive
- The woman’s role was of suffering wife and childcare provider
- Sex was shameful but also a woman’s trump card to “keep” her man
- Not much could be expected out of men, so just the bare minimum — not straying — should be expected from a partner
- Women had to do everything they could to keep even bad partners
- Divorce and break-ups were highly embarrassing for the wider family, evoking pity that one wasn’t good enough for a lasting relationship
- Compatibility was based on physical and financial compatibility and “looking good” to others; feelings were of less importance
- Marriage was about sacrifice and the tolerance of disrespect and emotional abuse
- All families had to keep secrets and look good to the outside world.
I didn’t know then what I know now: None of these beliefs were good foundations on which to build healthy relationships. All of the above were destructive and codependent beliefs that only invited or perpetuated abuse.
I didn’t know that it wasn’t normal or healthy for a family to lack affection and encouragement among its members. Instead, I’d grown familiar, against my will, with criticism, guilt-tripping, contempt, and more criticism, as the way family “love” was demonstrated. Emotional needs and feelings were treated as weak. All signs of vulnerability were attacked.
A family kept intact only through the threat and fear of shame.
No one who endorsed this should have been qualified to give any relationship or life advice, but that didn’t stop anyone. Perhaps some of my relatives did have good enough, loving relationships, but my parents would insinuate that they were facades.
They acted cocksure like their insecure relationship was the way all relationships were.
My mistake was believing them.
To say I needed to grow beyond my parents’ view of relationships to get to a healthy relationship myself is putting it mildly. I literally had to study psychology and go to therapy. (Attachment styles? Yep, did the quiz, wrote a paper, turned in the presentation.)
To fix myself, I had to apply antidotes to all the poisons from my youth I’d unknowingly ingested, and they were many.
Some of the other things I’ve learned have become Medium articles. But for this one, here’s the takeaway:
Don’t take relationship advice from people who are miserable in their relationships.
And this: Real love does not tolerate abuse.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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